Parental Responsibility Laws in Iowa

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

A parental responsibility law makes parents and/or guardians liable for certain kinds of harm or damage caused by minor children. In some states, a parent's liability is limited to intentional and/or malicious actions taken by a minor, while in other states, parental liability is also imposed for accidents.

Iowa has passed its own version of a parental responsibility law, and it can be found at Iowa Code section 613.16. In this article, we'll outline some of the key specifics of this law.

How Young Must a Child Be to Trigger a Parent's Liability in Iowa?

Parental responsibility laws only hold parents and legal guardians liable for certain actions of minor children. A minor, by definition, is any person who is under the age of majority. Iowa, like most states, sets the age of majority at 18. Accordingly, the Iowa statute discussed below will only apply when a child is under the age of 18.

Note: If a parent does not have custodial rights over a minor child, the parent cannot be held liable for the minor's actions under section 631.16.

Parents are Only Liability for Minor Child's "Unlawful Acts" in Iowa

In Iowa, the parents of an unemancipated minor are liable for any property damage and/or bodily injuries that result from the minor's "unlawful acts."

So, while many states open up a parent to liability for a minor child's intentional or willful acts, Iowa requires the minor's actions to be unlawful before a parent will be on the financial hook. That means a parent can be liable for the costs when a minor commits a crime like vandalism or assault. But if the act itself is not illegal, section 631.16 can't be used to hold a parent responsible.

Parent's Liability Limits Under Iowa Law

Under Iowa Code section 613.16, parents are responsible for the actual damages caused by their child's unlawful acts. That means compensation for out-of-pocket losses like property repair or medical bills. Parents can't be held liable for non-economic damages like pain and suffering under Iowa's law.

Section 613.16 also sets limitations on the amount a claimant can recover:

  • a parent shall not pay more than $2,000 for any one act, and
  • a parent shall not pay more than $5,000 to the same claimant for two or more acts.

Parents Will Also Be Liable To Business Entities – Not Just Individuals

Iowa Code section 613.16 specifies that parents' liability is not limited to individuals only. For example, if a minor vandalizes, or otherwise causes property damage through unlawful conduct on property owned by a business, the parents will be financially liable to that business (up to the dollar amounts detailed in the previous section).

Who Are the Proper Parties in a Lawsuit Brought Under Iowa's Parental Responsibility Laws?

If a claimant files a lawsuit under Iowa's parental responsibility law, the proper defendants in the lawsuit are the custodial parent(s) and the minor child. There is no need to appoint a guardian ad litem (or a lawyer) for the minor if the parents of the minor file an Answer to the Complaint.

Parents In Iowa May Face Liability Under Common Law

Even in cases where section 613.16 does not apply, parents may find themselves on the financial hook for their children's actions. There may be times, under traditional fault concepts (from a non-state specific set of principles known as the "common law"), when parents and guardians are accountable for general negligence.

For example, parents who know their child has a propensity to act recklessly or carelessly may be expected to take reasonable steps to prevent that child from causing foreseeable harm to others.

Suppose a parent knows that their child talks on the cell phone while driving, and that the child tends to do everything except pay attention to the road. The child has even racked up a few traffic citations for "distract driving." Let's say a parent knows about all of this, but still takes no steps to limit the child's use of his or her phone while driving the family car, and the child ends up causing a car accident while texting friends. In that situation, the parents could be considered negligent for allowing the child to drive. Learn more about Negligence and the Legal Duty of Care.

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