Under state statutes commonly referred to as "parental responsibility laws," parents and/or guardians may find themselves financially responsible for damages that minor children cause -- through intentional acts, and sometimes even through accidents, depending on the specifics of the state's law. In this article, we'll discuss New Mexico's parental responsibility laws, the kinds of conduct covered by these laws, and the extent of a parent or guardian's liability.
What are New Mexico's Parental Responsibility Laws?
New Mexico's Parental Responsibility Laws focus on two areas:
- a minor's willful/malicious acts (covered by New Mexico Statutes section 32A-2-27), and
- a minor's driving (covered by New Mexico Statutes section 66-5-11)
Like most states, New Mexico sets the age of majority at 18. So, these statutes only apply to the custodial parents/guardians of children who are younger than 18.
Parental Responsibility for Minor's Willful/Malicious Acts in N.M.
In New Mexico, pursuant to New Mexico Statutes section 32A-2-27, parents and guardians who have custody of a minor can be held responsible if the minor maliciously or willfully injures a person or damages property.
A parent or guardian's financial liability is limited to $4,000, plus court costs and (in some cases, attorney fees) incurred by the person who was harmed and brought the legal action.
The parent or guardian's liability is limited to "actual damages," which refers to any quantifiable losses stemming from the minor's actions. These include out-of-pocket losses like payment of medical bills and lost income for personal injuries, and payment to replace or repair damaged property. "Actual damages" does not include non-economic losses such as pain and suffering. If serious injuries are involved, these types of damages can get quite high, so this is an important distinction.
There are a couple more things to keep in mind with regard to section 32A-2-7:
- A court may still order minors to pay for damages caused by their malicious or willful actions even if the minors are within the provisions of the Delinquency Act, i.e. if the child has committed a crime.
- Foster parents are specifically excluded from liability under the statute.
Liability for a Minor's Driving in New Mexico
New Mexico Statutes section 66-5-11 requires a parent, guardian, employer, or any responsible person to sign a minor’s application for a driver’s license or instruction permit. If the minor, through any act of negligence, or willful misconduct, causes damage while driving, liability will be imputed to the person who signed the minor's application. Liability is "joint and several," which means the parent and the minor can be held responsible for the resulting damages individually or collectively.
Liability is not capped at any dollar amount under section 66-5-11, so parents or guardians can be liable for any and all injuries and vehicle damage resulting from a crash caused by a minor child, whether it's a fender-bender or an accident caused by the minor's drunk driving. And since damages are not capped or limited, that includes compensation for pain and suffering resulting from the car accident.
Parents, guardians, and other adults can avoid liability under section 66-5-11 by depositing proof of financial responsibility with the state. This can be done in the form of proof of insurance, or a bond.
Parents in New Mexico May Still Be Liable Under Common Law
Even in situations where New Mexico's parental responsibility laws do not apply, parents may find themselves financially responsible for their children’s actions. Under a non-statutory secondary legal authority known as the "common law," parents who know their child has a propensity to act recklessly or carelessly may be expected to take reasonable steps to prevent that child from causing foreseeable harm to others.
Suppose a parent knows his or her child purchased some throwing knives, and further knows the child tosses the knives around without taking any precaution for the safety of others. Clearly, the parent is on notice of the child's behavior; but the parent fails to do anything to stop it.
If the child then causes an accident by recklessly throwing these weapons around, the parent could be considered negligent for failing to take reasonable steps to control the child's behavior. In practical terms, it wouldn't be all that easy to prove that kind of case, but the parents could still be on the legal hook. Learn more about Negligence, the Duty of Care, and Fault for an Accident.