In this article, we’ll discuss West Virginia’s parental responsibility law, including when a parent can be held responsible for harm resulting from a minor’s conduct, and the financial limits of that liability.
What is a Parental Responsibility Law?
The specifics of parental responsibility laws vary widely, but most states have passed some variation of this kind of statute. In some states, parents can be held liable only when a minor’s conduct is intentional and/or malicious, and liability may be limited to property damage only. In other states, parents can be financially responsible for injuries caused by minor children. Learn more about the Basics of Parental Responsibility Laws.
When Do West Virginia’s Parental Responsibility Laws Apply?
Under West Virginia Code section 55-7A-2, a “custodial” parent can be held financially responsible for the following acts of a minor child:
- the malicious and willful injury to another person
- the malicious and willful damage to the real or personal property of another
- the malicious and willful setting fire to a forest or wooded area belonging to another, or
- the willful taking, stealing and carrying away of the property of another, with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of possession (which is basically the definition of criminal theft).
Looking at these different types of conduct, one thing that stands out is that a parent can only be held responsible under section 55-7A-2 when the minor’s actions are “malicious and willful.” That is an elevated standard, and it requires the minor to act purposefully and with the intent to do harm, or at least with a reckless disregard for the possibly detrimental consequences of the actions.
In other words, if the minor merely acts carelessly and ends up causing some kind of accident (such as a car accident), that is not enough to trigger a parent’s liability for any resulting injuries or vehicle damage. However, the statute would apply if a minor commits acts of vandalism or an assault and battery.
What is a “Custodial” Parent Under West Virginia’s Parental Responsibility Laws?
West Virginia Code section 55-7A-2 authorizes a civil lawsuit against the “custodial parent or parents of any minor child.” According to the statute, that means:
- the parent or parents with whom the minor child is living, or
- a divorced or separated parent who does not have legal custody over the minor, but who is exercising supervisory control over the minor at the time of the harmful act.
What is the Financial Limit of a Parent’s Liability in West Virginia?
Section 55-7A-2 specifies that no more than $5,000 can be collected from either or both parents as compensation for the injury or property damage caused by the minor. It’s important to note that compensation is also limited to “actual damages,” which means direct out-of-pocket losses stemming from the injury or damage, plus taxable court costs and interest from the date of the judgment.
That means a claimant will not be able to get compensation for non-economic losses like pain and suffering, which can really add up in a lawsuit over injuries.
West Virginia Parents May Be Liable Beyond What the Statutes Say
In West Virginia, parental liability for a child’s actions may still exist under traditional fault theories, regardless of what the parental responsibility statute says.
A parent may be liable for any resulting harm if:
- they know of their child’s dangerous tendencies
- they fail to take reasonable steps to properly supervise or control the child in light of those tendencies, and
- someone ends up suffering foreseeable harm as a result of that failure.
For example, let’s say a 16 year- old child constantly texts while driving. The parent knows this, and the child even has four citations for distracted driving to prove it. But the parent makes no effort to restrict the teen’s driving or curb her phone use. If the teen ends up causing a car accident while texting behind the wheel, the parent may be considered negligent. (Learn more about Negligence and the Duty of Care.)