Liability of Parents

Police officer at doorParents can be liable for certain torts they commit against their child and for torts their child commits against third parties.  A “tort” is the generic legal term for a civil wrong committed against another person, such as the willful or negligent injury to another person’s body, property or reputation.

Torts Committed by a Parent against a Minor Child

Under the parental immunity doctrine, parents generally cannot be held liable to their minor child for injuries resulting from negligent acts that involve exercising “parental authority” or “parental discretion.”  The purpose of the parental immunity doctrine avoids undue interference by the courts with parental discretion.

“Parental authority” pertains to a child’s (i) supervision, (ii) discipline, (iii) provision of a home or food, (iv) education, (v) medical care, (vi) chores, and (vii) recreation.  “Parental discretion” involves the provision of a child’s care and necessities that the parent is required to provide (such as food, clothing and shelter).  As long as a minor child’s injury resulted from exercising “parental authority” or “parental discretion,” a parent cannot be held liable for a child’s injury—even if the parent was negligent.

There, however, are four exceptions to the parental immunity doctrine where a parent can be held liable for torts committed against their child.  A child can sue a parent for intentional or malicious acts.  A child also can sue a parent for negligent acts involving the parent’s business activities when the parent employs the child in the business.  A child also can sue a parent for negligently operating a vehicle.  Finally, a child can sue a parent for acts resulting from a parent’s abandonment or abdication of parental responsibilities where the parent relinquished or renounced all parental responsibility.

Torts Committed by a Minor Child against a Third Party

Minor children are liable for torts committed against a third party.  Parents, however, are generally not liable for such torts except under the following four situations.

Parents can be liable for torts committed by their child against a third party while the child acted as an agent of the parents.  Parents also can be liable for entrusting their vehicle to their minor child who the parents know is an unlicensed, incompetent, or reckless driver.  Parents can be liable for not restraining their minor child who they know has dangerous or violent tendencies, including leaving a gun or other weapon where their child may access it.  Finally, parents can be liable for property damage (not personal injury) caused by their minor child if (i) the child’s conduct was negligent and the parents negligently failed to control or discipline the child, or (ii) the child is between the ages of 10 and 18 and the child’s conduct was willful and malicious.  In other words, the child knew better.

Liability for Contracts

Parents who do not properly support their minor child can be held liable to any person – including the other parent – who provides the child with “necessaries.”  Necessaries generally include clothing, food, shelter, medical and dental care, and education.

When a person other than a parent provides necessaries to a child, the law implies a contract between the person furnishing the necessaries and the child.  A parent can be held liable on the implied contract if the parent did not properly support the child.  A parent will not be held liable on an implied contract for necessaries, however, if the parent provided the child with all necessary support.

In addition to liability for torts and implied contracts, parents can be held liable for crimes they commit against their minor child and for certain crimes their child commits against a third party.

Liability for Crimes Committed against a Minor Child

Examples of crimes committed against a child for which parents can be held liable include (i) assault (intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly causing or threatening bodily injury to a child), (ii) continuous violence against the family (when a parent assaults a child two or more times during a 12 month period), (iii) abandonment (when a parent intentionally leaves a child younger than 15 without providing reasonable and necessary care for the child), and (iv) endangerment (when a parent intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly places a child younger than 15 in imminent danger of death, bodily injury, or physical or mental impairment).

Parents can also be held liable to their child for (i) criminal nonsupport (when a parent intentionally or knowingly fails to provide support for a child either younger than age 18 or the subject of a support order), (ii) interfering with child custody (taking or keeping a child in violation of a court order, removing a child from the child’s home county while a custody suit is pending, removing a child from the United States and/or enticing or persuading a child to leave), (iii) leaving a child in a vehicle for longer than five minutes, knowing the child is younger than seven and not attended by an individual who is 14 or older, (iv) driving while intoxicated with a passenger younger than 15, and (v) providing an alcoholic beverage to a person under 21 who is not the parent’s child.

Liability for Crimes Committed by a Minor Child against a Third Party

Examples of crimes committed by a minor child against a third party for which the child’s parents can be held liable include (i) theft (up to $5,000), and (ii) delinquent conduct (payment for support when the child is placed outside the parent’s home, payment for residential treatment programs, probation fees, restitution, court costs and/or attorney’s fees, and/or performance of community service).

Parents have duties and responsibilities to their children.  Responsible parents nurture and care for their children, properly supervise their children, and protect their children (and third parties) from harm.  If you need help clarifying your obligations to your children, call Sonya Coffman.  Because . . . family matters.