California Parental Responsibility Laws

Understanding a parent or legal guardian's potential liability for a minor's "willful misconduct" or negligence in California.

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Like a lot of states, California has passed a number of parental responsibility laws that place potential liability on parents (and legal guardians) when a minor causes harm to a person, or does damage to property. Lawmakers in California have passed statutes that could make parents civilly liable for a minor’s general misconduct, and for car accidents caused by the minor, among other acts. In this article, we’ll break down key aspects of these California laws.

Parental Liability for a Minor’s “Willful Misconduct” in California

This is covered by California Civil Code section 1714.1, which says: “Any act of willful misconduct of a minor that results in injury or death to another person, or in any injury to the property of another, shall be imputed to the parent or guardian having custody and control of the minor for all purposes of civil damages.”

The statute goes on to state that the custodial parent or guardian is jointly liable, along with the minor, for any damages resulting from the minor's willful misconduct, for an amount not to exceed $25,000 for each wrongful act (Note: This amount is adjusted every two years based on the cost of living and other factors).

If someone is injured because of the minor’s “willful misconduct”, the $25,000 limit can include compensation for medical treatment and other injury-related expenses, but it cannot include compensation for non-economic damages like pain and suffering. (Learn more about Damages in a Personal Injury Case.)

If the minor’s misconduct involves graffiti or “defacement of property of another with paint or a similar substance,” the limit of the parent/guardian’s joint liable is still $25,000, which also includes an award of court and attorney's fees to the person filing the lawsuit over the incident.

Keep in mind that California Civil Code section 1714.1 only imposes parental liability for a minor’s “willful misconduct,” which means that the minor did something on purpose -- rather than merely causing an accident or acting carelessly. “Willful misconduct” requires an intent to act, above and beyond mere negligence on the part of the minor.

Parental Liability for a Minor’s Driving in California

There are two main California statutes that pertain to a parent or legal guardian’s potential liability for damages caused by a minor’s driving.

The first, California Vehicle Code section 17707, says: “Any civil liability of a minor arising out of his driving a motor vehicle…is hereby imposed upon the person who signed and verified the application of the minor for a license, and the person shall be jointly and severally liable with the minor for any damages proximately resulting from the negligent or wrongful act or omission of the minor in driving a motor vehicle.”

Since, in California, the parent or legal guardian must sign a driver’s license application for any minor who is under 18, section 17707 essentially spells out civil liability for that parent or guardian if the minor causes a car accident.

The very next code section (California Vehicle Code section 17708) holds a parent potentially liable for all foreseeable damages any time they give express or implied permission for a minor to drive a vehicle (whether or not the minor is actually a licensed driver) and the minor ends up causing a car accident.

It's important to differentiate these driving-related statutes from the "willful misconduct" statute we discussed in the previous section, in terms of the minor's actions and the potential damages that could be available to the person who is suing for injuries.

First, when it comes to driving, parents can be jointly liable for any car accident caused by the minor. This means mere negligence or carelessness is enough to trigger the parent/guardian's legal responsibility for resulting damages (and the minor's intent does not enter into the picture).

Second, while California Civil Code section 1714.1 (the “willful misconduct” statute) limits a parent/guardian’s liability to $25,000 for actual damages, California’s driving related-statutes make a parent/guardian jointly liable for “any damages proximately resulting” from the accident. That includes compensation for non-economic losses like pain and suffering, which can add up to thousands of dollars when car accident injuries are significant.

Parental Liability Can Arise in Other Situations in California

Parents and legal guardians should keep in mind that they may still be legally responsible for a minor’s actions under traditional civil fault principles (known as “common law”), beyond what is covered in the statutes we discussed here.

A parent who fails to take reasonable steps to properly supervise a child -- knowing their child has a particularly dangerous propensity -- could be considered negligent if someone suffers foreseeable harm as a result of the child’s actions. Learn more about Negligence and the Duty of Care.

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