Under state statutes known as parental responsibility laws, parents and/or guardians may find themselves responsible for the damages their minor children cause. The specifics of a parent's liability vary from state to state.
In this article we'll summarize the key details of Utah’s parental responsibility laws, which focus on three areas:
- Driver's license application (covered by Utah Code section 53-3-211)
- Permission to drive (covered by Utah Code section 53-2-212), and
- Property damage (covered by Utah Code section 78(A)-6-1113).
Utah, like most states, sets the age of majority at 18. So, these laws only apply when a child is under the age of 18.
Liability for Adults Who Sign a Minor's Driver's License Application
Under Utah Code section 53-3-211, the parent or guardian of a minor applying for a learner permit or driver's license must sign the application for the permit/license.
If neither a parent nor guardian has legal custody of a minor (e.g. when a child is in the custody of Family Services), any “responsible adult who is willing to assume [responsibility] may sign the application.” Section 53-3-211 imputes liability to the signor of the permit/license application for civil "compensatory damages" caused by a minor while operating a motor vehicle.
“Compensatory damages” are the out-of-pocket expenses incurred by people harmed by the accident. If property damage is involved, the compensatory damages are the amount required to fix the damaged property. If there are bodily injuries, the compensatory damages are the amount of medical bills a victim incurs as a result of the injury.
Under Section 53-3-211, liability between the application signor and the minor is joint and several. This means a claimant may pursue damages from the minor and adult, collectively, or from either one of them, individually.
Section 53-3-211 also limits liability to the minimum limits established by Utah’s car insurance Laws. In addition, if the owner of the vehicle has car insurance that would cover the minor for an amount that meets Utah’s minimum coverage requirements, the signor of the permit/license application is not liable.
Vehicle Owner Liability
Under Utah Code section 53-2-212, a vehicle owner who knowingly allows a minor to drive a vehicle, or a person who gives/furnishes a vehicle to a minor, is jointly and severally liable along with the minor if the minor negligently causes damage while driving the vehicle. The same insurance rules described above apply here, too, i.e., if there is insurance in place for the legal amounts to cover the minor, no liability is imputed to the adult.
Nothing in Section 53-2-212 prevents a victim from pursuing a direct negligence claim against a person who furnishes a vehicle to a minor. Also, keep in mind that section 53-2-212 provides for liability in addition to, not in lieu of, the liability established under Section 53-2-211.
Liability for Property Damage Caused by a Minor
Under Utah Code section 78(A)-6-1113, a custodial parent or guardian will be liable for up to $2,000 in damages if their minor causes property damage.
The statute makes a number of distinctions based on the type of property damage involved, and whether the act must be intentional, reckless, willful, or unlawful. That said, Section 78(A)-6-1113 encompasses nearly every imaginable type of property damage -- including theft and graffiti. So if a minor causes property damage of any kind, Section 78(A)-6-1113 is likely to come into play.
A parent's liability may be increased to $5,000 if the minor commits the offense in connection with a criminal street gang. However, a court may also waive all or part of a parent’s/guardian’s liability for “good cause” or if the parent/guardian made reasonable efforts to prevent the wrongful conduct, and reported the wrongful conduct to the property owner or law enforcement. In addition, a parent or guardian will not be liable if he/she made a reasonable effort to supervise, direct, or restrain their minor child.
Parents in Utah May Still Be Liable Under Common Law
Parents may find themselves on the hook for their children’s actions even when Utah’s parental responsibility laws do not apply.
Under a non-statutory set of tradition-based legal principles known as the "common law," parents and guardians may be expected to take reasonable steps to prevent foreseeable harm to others when they know their child has certain "dangerous propensities."