Parental Responsibility Laws in Pennsylvania

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

By , Attorney · Cooley Law School

Most states in the U.S. have some type of parental responsibility law on the books. These statutes can be used to hold a parent or legal guardian financially responsible for certain actions of minor children. Parents are not necessarily responsible for everything their minor children do, but they are often liable if their child damages property on purposes, or hurts someone intentionally or maliciously. In some cases, parents may even be responsible for harm their child accidentally causes.

This article will focus on the key specifics of Pennsylvania's Parental Responsibility laws.

Where Can I Find Pennsylvania's Parental Responsibility Law?

Pennsylvania's parental responsibility law can be found at Pennsylvania Code Title 23 Chapter 55.

When a Minor Causes Property Damage Or Bodily Injury

In Pennsylvania, if a child is found liable, or guilty, of a "tortious act," the child's parent will be liable to the person who is injured. Pennsylvania Code Title 23 section 5501 defines "tortious act" as a willful act resulting in injury. "Injury" includes personal injuries and theft or property damage.

Liability in Criminal Proceedings

Under Pennsylvania Code Title 23 Section 5503, if a child is involved in a criminal proceeding stemming from a tortious act, the court must determine how much it will take to make the injured person whole. Once the court makes this determination, it will order the parents to make payment for that amount to the person injured. If the parents fail to comply with the court's order, the injured person may file a civil lawsuit directly against the parents for the damages that are owed.

Liability in Civil Proceedings

Under Pennsylvania Code Title 23 Section 5504, if a court enters judgment against a child in a civil action because the child injured someone through a tortious act, and the child does not pay the judgment within 30 days, the injured person may petition the court for an order to show cause why the court should not enter judgment against the minor's parent(s). Parents may file an answer to the petition.

If there is a dispute between the injured person and the parent as to facts the court has not determined, the matter will be set for a trial. If there is no dispute, however, the court will enter judgment against the parents. It should be noted that a victim of a willful, tortious act of a child can file a civil lawsuit directly against the parents of the child who committed the act.

Liability Limits

Under Pennsylvania Code Title 23 Section 5505, there are limits on parents' liability for tortious acts committed by their minor children. As a general rule, parents' liability is limited to $1,000 for any injuries suffered by any one person, or $2,500 for all injuries suffered by more than one person. This limit applies regardless of how many people are injured.

In the event a court determines that actual loss exceeds $2,500, parents can discharge themselves from liability by paying $2,500 to the court. The court, in turn, will attempt to distribute the funds in a proportionate manner, whether the claims are for bodily injury, theft, or destruction of property. And in case you are wondering what happens if two children of the same parents commit a tortious act, the damage limits still apply. In other words, the most any parent can be financially liable for is $2,500.

No Double Recovery and No Indemnity

There can be no double recovery under Pennsylvania Code Title 23 Chapter 55. If judgment is entered against a child, and that child's parent makes a payment (up to $2,500), the child's liability is reduced by the amount of the payment.

Once a parent makes payment, he/she does not have a right of indemnity or contribution against the child. In other words, the parent cannot turn around and recover their money from the child who committed the tortious act.

Parent Must Have Custody or Control to Be Liable

Parents can only be liable for the tortious acts of their children in Pennsylvania if they have custody or control over the child. However, a parent who has deserted a child is still on the legal hook for the child's tortious acts.

The Common Law May Still Place Responsibility on Parents in Pennsylvania

Even if a minor's actions fall outside the scope of the laws we have discussed above, a traditional, non-statutory set of rules known as the "common law" may still hold parents accountable for the actions of their minor children.

It isn't an easy case to prove, but usually if a parent knows that their engages in certain dangerous activities, the parent may be under a legal obligation to take reasonable steps to prevent the child from causing foreseeable harm to others. Learn more about Negligence and the Duty of Care.

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