How to Sue Minors in Small Claims Court

Learn about the special rules that apply to suits involving minors

It is very difficult to succeed when you sue a minor for breach of contract, because minors can disavow (back out of) any contract they sign as long as they do it before they turn 18. The only exception is if the contract was for a necessity of life–for example, food–in which case the minor's parents are probably responsible. You can sue emancipated minors, that is, people under 18 who are legally treated as adults. This includes minors who are on active duty in the armed services, are married, or have been emancipated (freed from parental control) by court order.

What about damage caused by minors? Although it is legal to sue minors for injuring you or damaging your property, it's rarely worthwhile, because most are broke and therefore can't pay the judgment. (There are exceptions, of course.) However, if you do wish to sue someone under 18, do it like this: "John Jeffrey, a minor, and William Jeffrey, his father."

But what about suing the offending kid's parents? Normally, a parent is not legally responsible to pay for damages negligently caused by his or her children. However, there are some exceptions to this rule. In virtually all states, if a child is guilty of "malicious or willful misconduct," a parent may be liable up to a certain dollar amount per act for all property damage ($10,000 in some states; often a lot more if a gun is involved) and sometimes for personal injuries. Parents may also be liable for damage done by their minor children in auto accidents, if they authorized the child to drive. (Check the index to your state's laws under "Minors," "Children," or "Parent and Child" for the rules in your state.)

Example 1: John Johnson, age 17, trips over his shoelace while delivering your newspaper and crashes through your glass door. Can you recover from John's parents? Probably not, as John is not guilty of "willful misconduct."

Example 2: John shoots out the same glass door with a slingshot after you have repeatedly asked his parents to disarm him. Can you recover from the parents? Probably.