While a minor is generally responsible for the damage he or she causes, it is difficult, if not impossible, to collect monetary reparations from a minor. Thus, the parents and guardians of children are legally responsible when a child commits a criminal act, or damages and injures another person, animal or property.
Parents and guardians are held responsible under the theory of “vicarious liability.” While a “parent” may be anyone who exercises control or authority over the child, typically the custodial parent is the one held civilly responsible for the child’s acts. Parental vicarious liability stems from a parent’s responsibility to supervise and educate a child.
Limitations on Parental Vicarious Liability
Most states have enacted parental vicarious liability laws, and many have a monetary limit on the amount of damages for which a parent may be held responsible. The amount a parent must pay usually varies by the type of act committed.
Acts Covered by Parental Vicarious Liability Statutes
Most states impose parental liability for the intentional or negligent acts of children. Some examples of these acts are: malicious or willful destruction of property, personal injury or death, theft and shoplifting, injury caused by firearms, automobile accidents, music file sharing, vandalism to school or government property, defacement of historical markers, gravesites, or flags, destruction of property in connection with hate crimes. Parents may responsible for paying restitution, fines, penalties, and damages.
Liability often attaches when the parent has knowledge of the child’s prior misconduct, the parent signed the child’s driver’s license and allowed the child to drive the parent’s car, the child was given access to firearms, and the child is found guilty of willful misconduct.
Age of the Minor
Usually, there is a minimum age a child must be before the parents may be held vicariously liable for his acts. Most statutes require a minor to be at least between the age of eight and ten before liability attaches. Liability ends when the minor reaches the age of majority, which is between the ages of 18 and 21.
Another basis of liability for the acts of children is the legal theory of negligent supervision. This basis of liability is not limited to parents or guardians, but applies to grandparents or persons with custody and control of a child. Limits on monetary liability usually do not apply, but a homeowner or umbrella insurance policy may provide some coverage.
The Family Car Doctrine
In about half of the states, a parent who allows a child to drive the family car is liable for the damage caused by the child while driving the car. It makes no difference whether the child is listed on the parents’ insurance.
A parent, guardian, or supervisory adult may be held civilly liable for damages caused by a child. A parent may be required to pay restitution, fines and penalties associated with the damages.