Can I Sue a Child for Personal Injury?

When your injuries are caused by the negligent or intentional acts of a child, here's what you need to know about legal and financial responsibility for your losses.

Most people think of a lawsuit as a legal proceeding between two adults. But what happens if you’re injured by the actions of a child? You may be surprised to learn that, depending on the type of act and the age of the child, you may be able to successfully sue the child for your personal injury. But keep in mind that filing a personal injury lawsuit is one thing; collecting a money judgment is another. Read on to learn more.

Negligent Versus Intentional Acts

If you’re injured by the actions of a child, whether or not you can sue the child for your personal injury will depend in part on whether the act that caused the injury was negligent or intentional. The primary difference here is that a “negligent act” is the result of carelessness, whereas an “intentional act” is one that is committed on purpose.

Let’s look at two examples:

  • A child picks up a rock during recess and throws it at a tree that’s also near a group of teachers. The rock misses the tree and hits one of the teachers in the eye.
  • A child picks up a rock during recess and throws it at his teacher, intending to hit her. The rock hits the teacher in the eye.

In the first example, the child probably committed a negligent act. In the second example, the child committed an intentional act that may be considered an "intentional tort" (in this case, the intentional tort would be a "battery", and might form the basis for a personal injury lawsuit by the teacher).

The distinction between a negligent act and an intentional act is an important one. That’s because most states allow you to sue a child -- or the child's parent or guardian, more on this later -- for an injury caused by an intentional act regardless of the age of the child, while limiting your ability to sue a child for an injury caused by a negligent act.

The Age of the Child

In situations where the underlying act was negligent (and, in a few states, even where the act was intentional), the child’s age will be key in determining whether you can sue him or her directly. (Note: a lawsuit against the child’s parent(s) may also be an option; more on this later.)

Court decisions handed down over the years have led to different rules for different states. For example, in some states, a child under a certain age (seven, let's say) can't be deemed capable of (or liable for) negligence. Elsewhere, a state might consider children under a certain age (i.e. 12) to be incapable of negligence, but that presumption might be considered a "rebuttable" one (meaning the injured person can introduce evidence to overcome the presumption).

Even when the laws of a state permit a child to be held responsible for negligence, the child is generally not held to the same legal standard that applies to adults. In other words, when determining whether the child was negligent, the child will not be judged by whether he or she behaved the way a reasonable adult would have. Instead, the child’s actions will be measured against those of a (fictional) reasonable child of similar age, experience, capacity, and development.

Children Participating in Adult Activities. In some states, if a child is participating in an adult activity when the injury occurs, the child can be held to the same legal standards as an adult. For example, if a sixteen-year-old child steals a car and crashes into your vehicle, causing personal injuries, that child may be held to the same standard as an adult, since driving a car is usually considered an adult activity.

Parents Can Be Liable for Their Children’s Actions

Almost every state has some version of a "parental responsibility law" that holds parents financially responsible for injuries caused by the intentional or negligent acts of their children. These laws often include a cap on the amount of damages the injured party can recover from the parents.

For example, in Washington, parents can be held financially responsible for injuries caused by the intentional acts of their children, but the amount of damages that can be recovered is capped at $5,000. (Revised Code of Washington section 4.24.190; note that this law is silent on parental liability for a child's negligent acts, but it specifically states that parents can be held liable for their own negligence in connection with their child's actions; i.e. for their failure to properly supervise the child.)

When it comes to car accidents, it's important to note that many states (including California) have passed laws that specifically hold parents financially responsible for injuries and vehicle damage when their minor children cause a crash.

"Winning" Versus Recovering Damages

You may be wondering if it's worth the trouble and expense of filing a personal injury lawsuit against a child -- especially in a state that doesn’t allow you to recover damages from the child’s parents. After all, children don’t usually have any money or assets.

The answer to this question probably depends on whether an insurance policy covers the injury-causing act of the child (for example, a homeowner’s insurance policy purchased by the parents that covers the child as an insured). An experienced personal injury attorney can help you decide whether suing a child for your personal injury is worthwhile based on the specific circumstances of your case and the laws in your state.

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