When are parents in Illinois deemed legally responsible for personal injury and other harm caused by the actions of their children? Like a lot of states, Illinois has passed a specific law that dictates the extent of parental liability in those situations. You’ll find all of the relevant legal language in the Illinois Compiled Statutes at 740 ILCS 115, which is commonly referred to as the Illinois “Parental Responsibility Law.” In the sections that follow, we’ll break down the most important aspects of this law. (Get more information on the Basics of Parental Responsibility Laws.)
Who May Be Liable Under the Illinois Parental Responsibility Law?
The law gives potential liability to parents and “legal guardians” of minors in Illinois. For purposes of the statute, a legal guardian means “a person appointed guardian, or given custody, of a minor by a circuit court of the State.” It does not apply to an adult who has merely been appointed “guardian” of a minor by a juvenile court in Illinois.
Who is a “Minor” for Purposes of the Illinois Parental Responsibility Law?
The law makes clear that a “minor” is a “person who is above the age of 11 years, but not yet 19 years of age,” as long as he or she is unemancipated. The child must also live with the parent or legal guardian in order for the Illinois Parental Responsibility Law to apply.
So, parents and legal guardians can still be on the legal hook for a child’s actions even after the child is 18 (until the child’s 19th birthday, to be exact), and there is a legal gray area for children under 11 years of age -- the state’s Parental Responsibility Law does not specifically apply in that situation, but the parent or guardian may still be legally responsible for the child’s actions under traditional fault and liability principles (more on that later).
What Kind of Conduct Can Trigger Parental Liability in Illinois?
Parents and legal guardians are not legally liable for damages in every instance where their child causes injury or damage to another person or entity. In fact, the Illinois Parental Responsibility Law does not mandate parental liability for most true “accidents” in which the minor was at fault but was merely negligent.
Instead, the law only creates parental and guardian liability for “the wilful or malicious acts” of a minor when that conduct causes injury to another person or to property (real or personal).
So, the minor’s conduct must have been purposeful, to some extent. That means liability will not usually extend to parents when a minor causes a car accident or some other harm due to carelessness, assuming the minor did not intend to cause injury or damage. Learn more about Negligence and Fault for an Accident.
What Kinds of Damages Might the Parent Be Responsible For?
It’s important to note that, under the Illinois Parental Responsibility Law, parents or legal guardians are only liable for “actual damages” caused by the minor’s conduct -- that means compensation will be limited to expenses like medical bills resulting from injuries caused by an assault, payment for property damage caused by vandalism, and other losses that can be easily quantified.
It also means that the parent or legal guardian is not liable for non-economic damages like “pain and suffering,” which can really add up in a typical personal injury claim. (Learn more about Damages in an Injury Case.)
The statute also makes clear that, when a plaintiff is successful in a lawsuit against a parent or legal guardian under the Illinois Parental Responsibility Law, the plaintiff may be awarded “reasonable attorneys’ fees,” meaning that the parent or legal guardian could be ordered to reimburse the plaintiff for any money paid for legal services in connection with the lawsuit.
740 ILCS 115/5 places a "cap" on parental liability, saying that it cannot exceed $20,000 in actual damages for each person or legal entity for the first occurrence where the minor's wilful or malicious act causes injury, and $30,000 for any "pattern or practice" of wilful or malicious acts, in addition to taxable court costs and attorney's fees.
Parents May Still Be Liable Outside the Parameters of the Illinois Statute
The Illinois Parental Responsibility Law also states that it is not intended to limit the potential liability of parents for their child’s actions -- or limit the recovery of damages by an injured party -- "in any other cause of action where the liability of the parent or legal guardian is predicated on a common law basis." We touched on this earlier, and this language of the statute means that a parent or legal guardian may still be legally responsible for a child's actions under traditional civil fault principles (that’s what "common law" refers to here).
In other words, parents who know of a child’s propensity to act recklessly or carelessly may be under a general legal obligation to take reasonable steps to prevent that child from causing foreseeable harm to others. So, if a parent knows that their child has a habit of texting while driving -- let’s say a 17 year-old has racked up four traffic citations for "distracted driving" in less than one year -- and the child ends up causing a car accident while sending a text message, then the parent could be considered negligent for still allowing the child to drive. And that liability could arise in Illinois even under circumstances in which the state’s Parental Responsibility Law does not apply.
Parents Civilly Liable for Minors' Shoplifting in Illinois
In addition to the "wilful or malicious acts" discussed above, when a minor commits the criminal offense of "retail theft" or shoplifting, 720 ILCS 5/16-27 makes a parent or legal guardian civilly liable for:
- actual damages equal to the full retail value of the stolen merchandise, and
- an amount not less than $100 nor more than $1,000, and
- the store owner's attorney's fees and court costs in pursuing the civil action over the shoplifting.