Most states have what is commonly called a "parental responsibility law.” These laws hold parents and/or guardians accountable when their unemancipated children cause injury or property damage intentionally, maliciously, and sometimes negligently, depending on the specifics of the state law. So, parental liability may be imposed for accidents, property damage (including vandalism), personal injuries, and/or incidents of theft.
This article outlines some of the specifics of Delaware’s parental responsibility laws.
Delaware’s parental responsibility laws focus on two main types of actions taken by minor children:
Parents are only responsible, under parental responsibility laws, if their child is a minor. Therefore, each state's definition of a "minor" is important. The age of majority is defined differently from state to state. Delaware, like most states, sets the age of majority at 18. So, the laws discussed below only apply to children in Delaware under 18.
In Delaware, the law requires a parent or guardian to sign a minor’s application for a driver’s license. If the minor, through any act of negligent driving, causes personal injury or property damage, the minor’s negligence will be imputed to the person who signed his or her driver’s license application (unless that person was a case worker).
So, if the parent or guardian signed the application, they are held jointly and severally liable for damages caused by the minor. This means that the parent/guardian and the minor child can be collectively or independently liable for all of the damages resulting from the car accident. In other words, the person who suffered damage can collect damages from one, or all, of the responsible parties.
In addition, any motor vehicle owner who knowingly allows a minor to drive his or her vehicle will be jointly and severally liable for any damages the minor causes while driving the vehicle. That part of Delaware law can apply to parents or guardians, or anyone else who gave the minor permission to drive their vehicle.
Many states’ parental responsibility laws related to driving set limits on parents’ liability, e.g. $5,000.00. Delaware, however, does not set any limit on liability. So if a minor causes a serious amount of damage, that minor’s parent or guardian could be on the hook for a hefty sum.
If a minor commits vandalism in Delaware and the minor lives with his or her parents, the parents will be financially responsible for the damage the minor causes. This responsibility extends to almost every person or entity who could be harmed by the minor’s conduct, including municipal corporations, counties, school districts, people, partnerships, corporations, or religious organizations. Although Delaware Code Title 10, Section 3922 imposes liability on the parents, it sets a ceiling at $10,000.00.
Even in cases where Delaware’s parental responsibility laws do not apply, parents may find themselves on the financial hook for their children’s actions. Parents have a duty, at common law, to exercise reasonable care to control their minor child so as to prevent intentional harm and reckless behavior when they know their child has a propensity to act recklessly or carelessly.
Suppose parents know their child comes home from school each day and hits golf balls out of the back yard across the neighborhood. This behavior could be considered intentional. At a minimum, it is probably reckless, and likely to pose an unreasonable risk of bodily injury (and property damage) to others. If a parent allows this behavior to continue, and the minor child hurts someone with an errant golf ball, there is a good chance the parent will be responsible for the damages that result.