Every state has enacted some version of a parental responsibility law. These are civil statutes that can be used to hold a parent or guardian financially responsible when a minor child commits certain acts. The specifics vary from state to state in terms of the type of conduct that will trigger parental liability, as well as the extent of a parent’s financial exposure. In this article, we’ll focus on parental responsibility law in Wisconsin, the full text of which can be found at Wisconsin Statutes section 895.035.
Under section 895.035, a parent who has custody of a minor child can be held financially liable for certain harm caused resulting from that child’s conduct. For purposes of this law, “custody” means:
Section 895.035 makes clear that, “in determining which parent has custody of a child for purposes of this section, the court shall consider which parent had responsibility for caring for and supervising the child at the time the act that caused the injury, damage or loss occurred.”
The law also specifies that a parent does not have custody if, at the time of the violation:
Under section 895.035, a parent can be on the financial hook for the results of a child’s “willful, malicious, or wanton” acts.
Specifically, the parent can be liable for:
It’s important to emphasize that a parent is only liable under section 895.035 when a minor acts willfully, maliciously, or wantonly. That means the minor acted purposefully, or at least with a certain recklessness or clear disregard for the possibly detrimental consequences of the actions.
If the minor merely acts carelessly and ends up causing some kind of accident (including a car accident), that is not enough to trigger a parent’s liability under Wisconsin’s parental responsibility law. However, the statute would apply if a minor commits vandalism or an act of assault and battery against someone else.
Wisconsin Statutes section 895.035 specifically caps a parent’s financial liability at $5,000 for any single act committed by a minor. So a claimant won’t be able to recover more than that amount from a parent, no matter how much damage or harm resulted from the minor’s actions.
The only exceptions are:
In Wisconsin, parental liability for a child’s actions may still exist under traditional fault theories like negligence, regardless of what section 895.035 says.
Though it isn’t the easiest case to make, a parent may be liable for any resulting harm (including personal injuries and property damage) if they know of their child’s dangerous tendencies, yet they fail to take reasonable steps to properly supervise the child, and someone ends up suffering foreseeable harm. Learn more about Negligence and the Duty of Care.