North Carolina Parental Responsibility Law

Under North Carolina Statutes section 1-538.1, parents can be held financially responsible for certain willful or malicious actions taken by their minor children.

Most states have passed some variation of a parental responsibility law, which is a civil statute that can be used to hold a parent or guardian financially liable for certain acts committed by minor children. North Carolina’s version of this law is fairly limited in terms of the type of conduct that will trigger parental liability, and the extent of a parent’s financial exposure. Read on to learn more about North Carolina’s parental responsibility law.  

When Does North Carolina’s Parental Responsibility Law Apply?

You can find the full text of North Carolina’s parental responsibility law at North Carolina General Statutes Annotated section 1-538.1.

The statute allows a person or any legal entity (such as a business or any other organization) to file a lawsuit seeking compensation from the parent or parents of “any minor who shall maliciously or willfully injure such person or destroy the real or personal property of such person.”

The statute holds either or both parents liable, but it makes clear that liability cannot extend to parents whose rights to custody and control over the minor have been removed, either by court order or by contract, prior to the minor’s actions.

It’s important to understand that a parent is only liable under section 1-538.1 when a minor acts intentionally, although not necessarily with the intent to cause the resulting personal injury or property damage. At the very least, the minor must have intended to do the thing he or she did. In other words, if the minor merely acts carelessly and ends up causing some kind of mishap (such as a slip and fall accident), that is not enough to trigger a parent’s liability under North Carolina’s parental responsibility law. But the statute would apply to acts of vandalism, or when a minor commits an assault and battery.

What is the Dollar Limit of a Parent’s Liability Under Section 1-538.1?

A claimant can sue a parent under North Carolina’s parental responsibility law, and can win a court judgment saying that the parent is indeed liable for the injury or property damage caused by the minor. But the claimant won’t be able to collect more than $2,000 in “actual damages,” because section 1-538.1 caps a parent’s financial liability at that amount.

"Actual damages" means all quantifiable losses stemming from the minor's actions, including payment of medical bills and lost income for personal injuries, and payment to replace or repair damaged property. But "actual damages" excludes non-economic losses like  pain and suffering, which can really add up in a lawsuit over serious injuries. So, not only is there a $2,000 damage cap in North Carolina, there is also a limit on the type of damages you can recover from a parent.  

North Carolina Parents and Guardians May Be Liable Beyond Section 1-538.1

Parental liability for a child’s actions may still exist under traditional fault theories like negligence. Basically, a parent may be liable for any resulting harm if they know of their child’s dangerous tendencies, yet they fail to take reasonable steps to properly supervise the child, and someone ends up getting injured in a way that was foreseeable. (Learn more about Negligence and the Duty of Care.)

North Carolina has also passed a law that lets a school or district hold a parent or legal guardian financially responsible for injuries and losses stemming from incidents involving minors’ use of firearms or explosive devices, if the educational entity can prove that the parent or guardian is culpable of negligent supervision. North Carolina General Statutes Annotated section 1-538.3 can be used to hold a parent or guardian liable for a minor’s actual use of firearms and explosives, and for false reports or hoaxes involving their use.

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