Are California Parents Responsible When Their Child Causes an Injury?

Understanding a parent or legal guardian's potential liability for a minor's "willful misconduct" or negligence in California.

By , J.D. University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated 5/23/2023

Like a lot of states, California has parental responsibility laws that can be used to hold parents (and legal guardians) responsible when a minor causes personal injury or damage to property in a number of scenarios, including for "willful misconduct" and car accidents.

Parental Liability for a Minor's "Willful Misconduct" in California

This kind of liability is covered by California Civil Code section 1714.1, which says: "Any act of willful misconduct of a minor that results in injury or death to another person, or in any injury to the property of another, shall be imputed to the parent or guardian having custody and control of the minor for all purposes of civil damages."

To translate, this statute makes California parents and legal guardians financially responsible for injuries and property damage caused by their minor child's "willful misconduct."

California's Financial Cap on Parents' Liability for a Child's Actions

The statute goes on to state that the custodial parent or guardian is jointly liable, along with the minor, for any damages resulting from the minor's willful misconduct, for an amount not to exceed $25,000 for each wrongful act (Note: This amount is adjusted every two years based on the cost of living and other factors).

If someone is injured because of the minor's "willful misconduct," the $25,000 limit can include compensation for medical treatment and other injury-related expenses, but it can't include compensation for non-economic damages like "pain and suffering."

California Parents' Liability For Their Child's Graffiti and Defacement of Property

If the minor's misconduct involves graffiti or "defacement of property of another with paint or a similar substance," the limit of the parent/guardian's joint liable is still $25,000, which also includes an award of court and attorney's fees to the person filing the lawsuit over the incident.

"Willful Misconduct" Versus Negligence

Keep in mind that California Civil Code section 1714.1 only imposes parental liability for a minor's "willful misconduct," which means that the minor did something on purpose—rather than merely causing an accident through carelessness. "Willful misconduct" requires an intent to act, above and beyond mere negligence on the part of the minor. But parents and guardians can be on the legal hook when a minor's negligence causes harm in the car accident context.

Parental Liability for a Minor's Driving in California

There are two main California statutes that can make a parent or legal guardian liable for damages caused by a minor's driving.

California Vehicle Code section 17707 says: "Any civil liability of a minor arising out of his driving a motor vehicle…is hereby imposed upon the person who signed and verified the application of the minor for a license, and the person shall be jointly and severally liable with the minor for any damages proximately resulting from the negligent or wrongful act or omission of the minor in driving a motor vehicle."

Since, in California, the parent or legal guardian must sign a driver's license application for any minor who is under 18, section 17707 essentially spells out civil liability for that parent or guardian if the minor causes a car accident.

California Vehicle Code section 17708 holds a parent potentially liable for all foreseeable damages any time they give express or implied permission for a minor to drive a vehicle (whether or not the minor is actually a licensed driver) and the minor ends up causing a car accident.

It's important to differentiate these driving-related statutes from the "willful misconduct" statute we discussed in the previous section, in terms of the minor's actions and the potential damages that could be available to the person who is suing for injuries.

Parents Can Be "Jointly Liable" for Kids' Car Accidents In California

When it comes to driving, parents can be jointly liable for any car accident caused by the minor. This means mere negligence or carelessness is enough to trigger the parent/guardian's legal responsibility for resulting damages (and the minor's intent does not enter into the picture).

Parents' Financial Responsibility Isn't Capped When It Comes to Car Accidents

While California Civil Code section 1714.1 (the "willful misconduct" statute we covered earlier) limits a parent/guardian's liability to $25,000 for actual damages, California's driving related-statutes make a parent/guardian jointly liable for "any damages proximately resulting" from the accident. That includes compensation for non-economic losses like pain and suffering, which can add up to tens of thousands of dollars when car accident injuries are significant.

Learn more about parents' liability for teen drivers' accidents, and California laws that can affect a car accident case.

Parental Liability Can Arise in Other Situations in California

Parents and legal guardians in California should keep in mind that they may still be legally responsible for a minor's actions under traditional civil fault principles, beyond what's covered in the statutes we've discussed here.

In general, a parent who fails to take reasonable steps to properly supervise a child—knowing their child has a particularly dangerous propensity—could be considered negligent if someone suffers foreseeable harm as a result of the child's actions. Get the basics on parental responsibility laws and personal injury liability.

What's Next?

It's never a bad idea for parents and legal guardians to get familiar with state laws that could make them liable for the actions of their minor children. But if you're actually facing a lawsuit or other legal action involving harm caused by your minor child, you may need more than just information. It might make sense to discuss your situation with an experienced legal professional. Learn more about getting help from a personal injury lawyer.

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