In this article, we’ll look at the details of Virginia’s parental responsibility law, which is fairly limited in terms of when a parent can be held financially responsible for a minor’s conduct.
What is a Parental Responsibility Law?
Most states have some kind of parental responsibility law on the books, but the specifics of these laws vary widely. In some states, parents can only be held liable for a minor’s intentional acts, and liability may be limited to property damage only. In other states, a parent can be financially responsible for a car accident caused by a minor child, and for injuries to other drivers and passengers.
When Do Virginia’s Parental Responsibility Laws Apply?
Virginia has passed two statutes that allow a civil lawsuit against a parent based on acts committed by a minor child who is living with the parent:
- Code of Virginia section 8.01-43: Action against parent for damage to public property by minor.
- Code of Virginia section 8.01-44: Action against parent for damage to private property by minor.
As you can see, both of these statutes are concerned only with damage to or destruction of property (public or private) resulting from a minor’s conduct. There is no provision in Virginia law that makes a parent statutorily liable for personal injury caused by a minor’s conduct (although that sort of liability may still be possible; more on this later).
What’s more, a parent can only be held responsible under sections 8.01-43 and 8.01-44 when the minor’s destruction of or damage to the property was “willful or malicious.” That is an elevated standard which requires the minor to act purposefully, or with clear disregard for possibly detrimental consequences.
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 vehicle damage under Code of Virginia section 8.01-44. However, the statute would apply if a minor commits acts of vandalism.
Who Can File a Lawsuit Under Virginia’s Parental Responsibility Laws?
Code of Virginia section 8.01-43, which allows recovery for damage to or destruction of public property, authorizes the following types of property owners to file a lawsuit against the minor’s parents:
- The Commonwealth of Virginia (acting through the officers who are in charge of the public property that was damaged or destroyed)
- the governing body of a county, city, town, or other political subdivision in Virginia, or
- a school board in Virginia.
Under section 8.01-44, any owner of private property may bring a lawsuit against the minor’s parents. That includes a person, a corporation or other business entity, or some other private organization.
What is the Financial Limit of a Parent’s Liability in Virginia?
This is where the limits of Virginia’s parental responsibility laws are most apparent. Both sections 8.01-43 and 8.01-44 specify that no more than $2,500 can be collected from either or both parents as compensation for the damage to or destruction of property. So a claimant won’t be able to recover more than that amount from the parents, individually or collectively, no matter how much damage resulted from the minor’s actions.
Virginia Parents May Be Liable Beyond What the Statutes Say
In Virginia, parental liability for a child’s actions may still exist under traditional fault theories, regardless of what the statutes say (or don’t say).
A parent may be liable for any resulting harm (including not just property damage but personal injuries too) 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.)