Most people think of a lawsuit as a legal proceeding between two adults. But what happens if you're injured by a child? Depending on the type of act and the child's age, you might be able to sue the child. Keep in mind, though, that filing a personal injury lawsuit against a child is one thing. Collecting a judgment against a child is another.
When you're finished with this article, you'll better understand:
If you're injured by a child, whether you can sue the child will depend, in part, on whether the child's act was negligent or intentional. A negligent act is the result of carelessness, but an intentional act is one that's done on purpose.
Let's look at two examples:
In the first example, the child's action was probably negligent. In the second example, the child's act most likely would be considered an intentional tort called a battery. Depending on state law, the teacher might be able to file a personal injury lawsuit against the child to recover damages.
Here's why the distinction between negligence and an intentional tort is important. Most states allow you to sue a child—or the child's parent or guardian (more on this later)—for an injury caused by a child's intentional act, regardless of the child's age. But state laws frequently limit your ability to sue children, especially very young children, for negligence.
In situations where the child acted negligently (and, in a few states, even where the act was intentional), the child's age will be key in determining whether you can sue the child directly.
State court decisions have led to different rules. For example, some states treat children under a certain age (seven years old is typical, but it varies) as legally incapable of negligence. In other states, the law sets up a rebuttable presumption that very young children are incapable of acting negligently. The injured person can rebut this presumption with evidence showing that the child knew they should have acted more carefully.
Even when state law allows a child to be sued for negligence, the child usually isn't held to the same legal standard that applies to adults. When an adult is accused of negligence, the question is whether a reasonable adult would have acted more carefully. A child's actions will be measured against those of a (fictional) reasonable child of similar age, experience, capacity, and development.
If a child causes injury while participating in an adult activity, some states hold the child to the same negligence standard as an adult. For example, driving a car is usually considered an adult activity. If an 11-year-old child steals a car, crashes into your vehicle, and causes you personal injuries, that child might be held to the same standard as an adult.
Almost every state has a parental responsibility law that holds parents financially responsible for at least some injuries caused by their child's intentional or negligent acts. But frequently there's a tradeoff: These laws often "cap"—or limit—the amount of damages an injured party can recover from the parents.
For example, in Washington, parents can be held financially responsible for injuries caused by their child's willful and malicious acts. Recoverable damages are capped at just $5,000. (Wash. Rev. Code § 4.24.190 (2023).)
Washington's law is silent on parental liability for a child's negligent acts. But the statute expressly says that parents can be held liable for their own negligence in connection with their child's actions. Suppose a parent negligently failed to supervise a child in Washington, and the child intentionally or negligently injured someone. The parent could be held legally responsible to the extent their own negligence was the cause of the injuries.
Underage drivers frequently cause car accidents, Several states have responded with laws that hold parents financially responsible for injuries and vehicle damage when their minor children cause a crash. (Learn more about California's parental responsibility laws.)
Is it worth the trouble and expense of filing a personal injury lawsuit against a child? This question is particularly important in a state that doesn't let you recover damages from the child's parents, or that caps parents' damages liability. Children, after all, usually don't have any money or assets you can look to for payment of your damages.
Whether it makes sense to sue a child probably depends on whether an insurance policy covers the child's actions. For example, a homeowner's insurance policy purchased by the parents might cover the child as an insured. If there's insurance (or another source of funds) to pay for your damages, it makes more sense to sue.
But even if you choose not to sue the child (or aren't allowed by state law to sue), be sure to examine the potential liability of others—parents, guardians, caretakers, teachers, or others who should have supervised the child more closely. The fact that the child might be off the hook generally doesn't free others from the consequences of their own negligence.
There are likely to be special rules in play when the person who caused your injury is a child, especially a very young child. Some states limit your ability to sue, and many apply special legal standards to children's actions. Before you bring a claim or file a lawsuit against a child, make sure you understand your state's laws.
An experienced personal injury attorney can tell you whether you can sue, and help you decide whether suing a child for your personal injury makes sense. Here's how to find a lawyer who's right for you and your case.