Many people don't realize that parents can be held legally liable for the acts of their minor children. Though the specifics vary, almost every state has enacted some version of this kind of law, and it usually applies to intentional acts committed by the child. In some states, parents may even be liable for accidents caused by their children. (Get the basics on Accidents and Injuries Involving Children.)
Parental responsibility laws have been a mainstay of our legal system for more than a century. Hawaii was the first state to enact a law of this type in 1846, and to this day Hawaii's version of the law remains one of the most encompassing in its application. In most states, the concept of parental responsibility applies to both the criminal and civil acts of the child.
While it may appear to be unfair for a parent to be held responsible for the acts of a child, state legislatures have decided that an innocent victim should not bear the financial burden of property damage or medical expenses that results from some other person's wrongdoing.
The reasoning behind such laws is that parents have a legal duty to take reasonable steps to supervise their minor children, and if they fail to fulfill that obligation, and the child ends up causing harm to another person or to property, the parent is legally (usually that means financially) responsible.
A minor is any person who has not yet reached the age of majority. The age at which a child legally becomes an adult varies from state to state, but in most states that age is 18. Most states that have parental responsibility laws have established the rule that parents can be held responsible for the acts of their child only until the child reaches 18 years of age. However, at least one state has expanded parental responsibility to include children up to 21 years of age in certain situations.
As mentioned above, laws governing parental responsibility differ widely among the states, but here is a small sampling:
California: Parents can be held 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 damages resulting from a child's negligent acts while operating an automobile with the parents' permission. The parents can be responsible for another person's medical expenses up to $25,000. There is a similar limit for property damage.
Illinois: Parents may be responsible for a child's willful or malicious property damage or acts causing personal injury. Parents are also liable for a child's damage to any religious structure such as a church, synagogue, mosque or cemetery. The amount for which a parent may be liable in any single incident is $20,000.
Louisiana: Parents are liable for any damage caused by a child. There is no limit on a parent's financial exposure.
Maine: Parents are liable only for a child's willful or malicious damage to a person or property. A parent's financial exposure is limited to $800, regardless of the amount of actual loss.
New Jersey: Parents may be liable for a child's acts, but only for damage to railroads, public utilities, or school property. In those instances a parent's financial responsibility is capped at $5,000.
A number of states have passed parental liability laws that make a parent liable for any resulting injuries and vehicle damage when a minor child causes a car accident. However, many states also have specific statutes further defining the legal liability of a parent or other adult in that situation. Those statutes are typically called "sponsorship laws."
In those states, anyone under the age of 18 must have a "sponsor" in order to obtain a driver's license. The sponsor is typically a parent, but may also be an employer or other adult. If, while driving a car, the minor is negligent or engages in willful misconduct, any damages resulting from the conduct can be imputed to the adult sponsor. This is true even if the sponsor had no actual control over the minor, and did not own the vehicle.
You can learn more about Vicarious Liability for Parents of Teen Drivers on our affiliated site, all-about-car-accidents.com.