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.
Who Can Be Liable Under Wisconsin’s Parental Responsibility Law?
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:
- legal custody via a court order
- custody that is agreed upon under a legal stipulation, or
- actual physical custody of a child.
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:
- the minor was married
- the minor was legally emancipated, or
- the parent did not have the reasonable ability to exercise supervision and control of the child -- either because the child was “uncontrollable” or because someone else interfered with the parent's ability to control the child.
What Kind of Conduct Triggers Parental Liability in Wisconsin?
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:
- damages to property
- the cost of repairing or replacing damaged property
- the cost of removing marking, drawing, writing, or etching from property after a graffiti violation
- the value of unrecovered stolen property, and
- harm resulting from personal injury.
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.
What is the Dollar Limit of a Parent’s Liability Under Section 895.035?
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:
- A school district or private school can recover up to $20,000 against the parent of a minor who commits an act -- or makes a threat to commit an act -- that endangers a school or its students, including a bomb threat, arson, or other kinds of property damage.
- If a minor commits retail theft, the parent will be liable for the retail value of the stolen goods or services (unless the goods are returned undamaged or unused), plus up to $300 total as compensation for “exemplary” damages and the store’s attorney’s fees in bringing the action.
Wisconsin Parents May Be Liable Beyond Section 895.035
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.