Parental Liability for Minors’ Torts: Adult Activities & Repeat Offenses
PARENTS HAVE A DUTY TO SUPERVISE CHILDREN AND TO ATTEMPT TO PREVENT KNOWN MISCONDUCT FROM RECURRING
Parents may be held liable for torts committed by minor children when the parent knew (or had reason to know) that the child was likely to engage in harmful conduct. Generally, this liability is predicated on prior conduct–a child who has engaged in harmful or illegal conduct in the past is more likely to do so again, unless properly supervised or controlled.
The parent’s liability is not absolute. This type of parental liability is normally based on a negligence theory–holding the parents liable when they fail to exercise reasonable supervision and control over children with a history of tortious or violent misconduct or of conduct likely to lead to tortious behavior. For example, where parents know that a child habitually bites strangers, the parents may have a legal liability to warn certain people (for example, babysitters) of the child’s tendencies.
PARENTS MAY HAVE LIABILITY FOR THE TORTS OF CHILDREN ENGAGED IN “ADULT ACTIVITIES”
Where parents facilitate and grant permission for their minor children to engage in certain kinds of adult activities, parents may face legal liability for damages their children cause in the course of such activities. Sometimes this parental liability is created by statute. In other cases, it comes about through recognized legal theories, such as negligence. Before permitting minors to engage in adult or hazardous activities, parents should consult the law (and, if appropriate, an attorney) and make certain they understand their legal rights and obligations.
Where a minor child lacks the maturity or capacity to engage in hazardous or “adult” activities responsibly, parents may have a legal obligation to prevent or refuse permission for the child to participate.
PARENTAL LIABILITY FOR VEHICULAR TORTS OF MINORS
The California Vehicle Code requires a parent or guardian to sign and verify their minor children’s application(s) to obtain a driver’s license. The parent or guardian’s signature on the child’s driver’s license application also renders the parent liable for torts the minor commits while driving an automobile. There is an exception which applies when the minor is driving the vehicle as an agent for someone else (aside from the parent) but this exception will not apply in many cases.
The law does limit the parent’s liability for vehicular torts committed by their minor children, and places limits on out-of-pocket damages in some cases, but the amounts are high enough that most families may have trouble paying damages for minor children’s automotive torts.
PARENTAL LIABILITY FOR MINORS’ USE OF FIREARMS
The California Civil Code states that where a minor’s discharge of a firearm causes damage or injury to a person or property, the parent or guardian with custody of the minor may be held legally responsible for the damages caused by the minor’s wrongful act. Liability attaches if the parent or guardian: (a) left the firearm in a place where the minor was able to access it (whether or not the minor had permission to do so, or had been told not to touch the gun), or (b) permitted the minor to use the firearm. Where weapons are properly stored and locked, and a minor takes them from the parent’s house without permission, the parent may avoid liability (if the parent can demonstrate that proper steps were taken to keep the weapons out of the minor’s hands). As with vehicular torts, the Civil Code contains a numerical cap on the damages a parent can be responsible for in these cases. However, alternative theories to a plaintiff’s recovery against the parents may also exist.
The takeaway lesson: parents should take care to supervise minor children appropriately, and to place reasonable restrictions on the behavior of their children. Parents should pay attention to their children’s behavior, take steps to stop harmful or violent behavior promptly, and not allow children to engage in adult activities unless the minor child is properly supervised and possesses the maturity, capacity, and control required to conduct the activities properly and safely.
DISCLAIMER: This article is intended for informational purposes only, does not constitute legal advice to any person or entity, and does not create an attorney-client relationship with any person or entity. Legal liability involves complex legal analysis, and no single article can provide complete or comprehensive coverage or information about this or any other legal topic or issue. Your personal rights and liabilities may differ, based on individual facts and circumstances. If you believe you have a legal claim or issue, or wish to know more about your individual rights, consult an experienced attorney immediately.