Parental Responsibility Laws and Personal Injury

Nearly every state holds parents and legal guardians liable for the misdeeds of their children. Here’s what to know.

By , Attorney University of Tulsa College of Law
Updated by Stacy Barrett, Attorney UC Law San Francisco
Updated 4/11/2024

Imagine you're making dinner in your house when you see your neighbor's twelve-year-old child spray-painting his name on your garbage can. Who should pay to have it cleaned or replaced?

In most states, the child's parents will likely be on the hook for the damage to your garbage can. Nearly every state has its own parental responsibility laws that impose some form of legal liability on parents for the actions of their children.

Whether you're a parent or the victim of a child's harmful behavior, here's what you need to know about parental responsibility laws:

  • Parental responsibility laws vary from state to state.
  • Most states hold parents liable when their children intentionally cause property damage or personal injury. Some states also hold parents liable when their children negligently (carelessly) cause harm, especially while driving a vehicle.
  • Parental responsibility laws are meant to encourage parents to actively supervise their children by making them financially responsible for their children's misdeeds.
  • Most states put a dollar limit on the amount parents can be liable for the actions of their children.

What are Parental Responsibility Laws?

Historically, parents were not responsible for harm caused by their children solely based on the parent-child relationship. Under common law rules, parents are typically liable for the actions of their children only when:

  • the child acted as an agent of the parent
  • the parent's own negligence made the harm possible, or
  • the parent negligently entrusted the child with a dangerous instrument (like a car or a weapon).

Over time, lawmakers began passing parental responsibility laws to make it easier for people harmed by children to get compensation. After all, children rarely have enough money to pay for injuries and property damage they cause, which often leaves victims out in the cold. Under parental responsibility laws, parents become "vicariously liable" for the acts of their children and must foot the bill.

Lawmakers also use parental responsibility laws to motivate parents to supervise their children. The idea is that if parents have to bear the cost when their children misbehave they will be more likely to pay attention and intervene when necessary.

Hawaii passed the first parental responsibility law back in 1846. Now, nearly all states have laws imposing parental responsibility for their children's civil wrongs and criminal actions.

People harmed by children can typically sue parents based on parental responsibility laws or common law rules.

When Does Parental Responsibility Begin and End?

State laws vary as to when parents become legally responsible for the actions of their children and when that responsibility ends. Most states have parental responsibility laws that kick in when a child is born and end when a child turns 18 years old. A few states limit liability to children above a certain age (for example, 10 or 11) or extend responsibility up to the age of 21 years old.

Some states specify that their parental responsibility laws don't apply to emancipated minors or minors who are married.

Examples of Parental Responsibility Laws

As noted, parental responsibility laws vary quite a bit from state to state. If you're dealing with a legal issue related to parental liability you should talk to a lawyer in your area. Here is a small sampling of what these types of laws look like in different states.

California: Parents are liable for any "willful misconduct causing injury, death or property damage" by a minor under the age of 18. Parents may also be liable for a child's negligent driving, for the cost of cleaning up a child's graffiti, and for injuries and property damages caused by the discharge of a firearm when the parent allowed the child to have the firearm or left the fire accessible to the minor. Liability is limited. Limitations vary from $25,000 to $60,000 based on the type of harm caused.

(Cal. Civ. Code §§ 1714.1, 1714.3 (2024); Cal. Veh. Code §§ 17707-17708 (2024); Cal. Gov't Code § 38772 (2024).)

Illinois: Parents are liable for "willful or malicious" acts by minors under the age of 18 causing property damage or personal injury. Parents are also liable for a child's damage to any religious structure such as a church, synagogue, mosque, or cemetery. A parent's liability is capped at $20,000 plus attorneys' fees.

(740 Ill. Comp. Stat. §§ 115/1-7 (2024); 720 Ill. Comp. Stat. § 5/21-1.2 (2024).)

Maine: Parents are liable when a minor between the ages of 7 and 17 years old "willfully or maliciously" causes property damage or injury to a person. A parent's financial exposure is limited to $800, regardless of the amount of actual loss. Parents may also be liable for the negligent driving of a minor if they knowingly allow a minor to drive a car they own.

(Me. Rev. Stat. tit. 14 § 304 (2024); Me. Rev. Stat. tit. 29-A § 1651 (2024).)

New York: Parents are liable when a child between the ages of 10 and 18 years old "willfully, maliciously, or unlawfully" damages or burglarizes property. New York also specifically holds parents accountable when a minor between the ages of 10 and 18 makes a false bomb threat. Liability is limited to $5,000.

(N.Y. Gen. Oblig. § 3-112 (2023).)

Parental Liability for a Minor's Acts While Driving a Car

It's no secret that young drivers are at a higher risk of getting in car accidents. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), teen drivers have a fatal crash rate almost three times as high as drivers ages 20 and older per mile driven.

Who pays when a teenager gets in an accident? In many states, parents do. States hold parents responsible under different legal theories, including:

The family purpose rule. Many states hold parents liable for the actions of their teen drivers under a legal theory called vicarious liability. Similar laws make employers liable for an employee's car accident.

Negligent entrustment. Parents may also be legally and financially responsible for their teen driver when they knew or should have known their child was a danger on the road and let the teen drive anyway.

Driving privilege liability. A few states, including California and Florida, require parents to agree to accept responsibility for a minor teen's driving when the teen applies for a license.

Learn more: Am I Liable If My Teen Driver Causes a Car Accident?

Talk to a Lawyer

Parental liability laws are complex. Whether you're a parent or someone who is trying to hold a parent liable, a lawyer can answer your questions. You'll need to know how the parental liability laws in your state apply to your situation and then you can decide what to do.

Learn more about getting help from a personal injury lawyer. When you're ready, you can connect with a lawyer directly from this page for free.

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