In this article, we’ll discuss parental responsibility law in the state of Washington, including when a parent can be held liable for a minor’s conduct, and the financial limits of that liability.
What is a Parental Responsibility Law?
In most states, there is some type of parental responsibility law on the books. But the specifics of these laws vary pretty significantly. In some states, parents can only be held liable when a minor causes property damage as a result of an intentional act. In other states, a parent can be responsible when a minor causes a mishap like a car accident, and liability can extend to injuries suffered by other drivers and passengers.
When Does Washington’s Parental Responsibility Law Apply?
Revised Code of Washington section 4.24.190 allows a civil lawsuit against a parent based on certain acts committed by a minor child who is under 18 and is living with the parent.
Section 4.24.190 can form the basis of a lawsuit against a parent any time their minor child:
- willfully or maliciously destroys or defaces real or personal property belonging to another, or
- willfully and maliciously inflicts personal injury on another person.
So, in Washington, a parent can be on the financial hook for losses stemming from either property damage or personal injury caused by their minor child. But the key here is that the parent will only be held responsible under sections 4.24.190 when the minor acted “willfully or maliciously.” This is an elevated standard that requires the minor to have done something purposeful, or with ill will, or at least with clear disregard for the 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 any resulting injuries or vehicle damage in Washington. However, the statute would apply if a minor commits an assault and battery or some act of vandalism like graffiti.
Who Can File a Lawsuit Under Section 4.24.190?
Revised Code of Washington section 4.24.190 does not set any limit on who has the legal right to file a lawsuit against a parent over harm caused by a minor’s conduct.
So, any person who is injured by a minor’s willful or malicious act may file a lawsuit. And any owner of private or public property that was damaged or destroyed may make a claim -- that includes a person, a government entity, a corporation or other business entity, or any other private or public organization.
What is the Financial Limit of a Parent’s Liability in Washington?
Section 4.24.190 specifies that no more than $5,000 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, no matter how much property damage or personal harm resulted from the minor’s actions.
Washington Parents May Be Liable Beyond Section 4.24.190
Section 4.24.190 makes clear that parental liability for a child’s actions may still exist under traditional fault theories, regardless of what the statutes say (or don’t say), declaring: “This section shall in no way limit the amount of recovery against the parent or parents for their own common law negligence.”
“Common law negligence” means fault under a non-statutory set of rules that has developed over time, usually through court decisions. Under common law, a parent may be considered negligent 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, and she even has four citations for distracted driving to prove it. Even though the parent is aware of this dangerous habit, he 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.)