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Parental Civil Liability

Each state has its own law regarding parents' civil (non-criminal) liability for the acts of their children. Parents can be held responsible for their children's harmful actions much the same way that employers are responsible for the harmful actions of their employees. This legal concept is known as vicarious liability. The parent is vicariously liable, despite not being directly responsible for the injury.

Financial Responsibility

A number of states hold parents financially responsible for damages caused by their children. Once the child is of majority age (which in most states is 18), the child is no longer a minor and the parents are no longer liable. If there has been a termination of parental rights over a minor, the parent also won’t be liable for any acts of the minor because the legal parent-child relationship has ended.

Some states, however, place limits on the amount of liability that parents will be responsible for. Parental civil liability laws vary from state to state, but many cover such acts as:

  • Vandalism to government or school property;
  • Defacement or destruction of the national and state flags, cemetery headstones, public monuments or historical markers; and
  • Property destroyed in hate crimes, based on race or religion, such as ransacking a synagogue.

Personal injury in connection with any of these acts may also be included in parental civil liability laws.

Negligent Supervision

A parent is liable for a child's negligent acts if the parent knows or has reason to know that it is necessary to control the child and the parent fails to take reasonable actions to do so. This legal theory is known as negligent supervision. Liability for negligent supervision is not limited to parents. Grandparents, guardians, and others with custody and control of a child may also be liable under these circumstances. There is usually no dollar limit on this type of liability. An umbrella or homeowner's insurance policy may offer the adult some protection in a lawsuit.

The "Family Car" Doctrine

The Family Car Doctrine holds the owner of a family car legally responsible for any damage caused by a family member when driving, if the owner knew of -- and consented to -- the family member's use of the car. This doctrine is applied by about half of the states and is known under the broader theory of negligent entrustment. Thus, even if a parent doesn’t have a minor household member listed on the auto insurance policy, under the family car doctrine the adult remains liable.

Most insurance policies have special provisions for members of the household under the age of eighteen. Typically, minor drivers must be included on the policy. The car owner would not be able to invoke the uninsured motorist provision for a minor child driver residing in the insured's household and driving the insured's vehicle.

Need Help?

If you have a minor who has been involved in any intentional or negligent acts, you should consult with an experienced personal injury attorney in your area to help you determine what kind of liability you may face as a parent. 

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