A parental responsibility law (some version of which is on the books in every state) can be used to hold parents financially responsible for injuries or damages caused by their minor children. Many states require intentional and/or malicious actions on the part of the minor before a parent will be civilly liable, but the specifics vary from state to state (a few states hold parents liable for car accidents caused by their minor children).
In this article, we'll dig into some of the key specifics of Rhode Island’s parental responsibility law, including when it applies, and the financial limits of a parent's financial liability.
Rhode Island's parental responsibility law can be found at Rhode Island General Laws section 9-1-3.
(Note: Rhode Island, like most states, sets the age of majority at 18. So the law we're discussing here only applies if a child is under the age of 18 at the time he or she causes property damage or injury.)
In Rhode Island, General Laws Section 9-1-3 provides that parents will be liable when their unemancipated minor willfully or maliciously causes property damage or bodily injury to a person. Essentially, all a claimant needs to establish is that the minor would have been liable for the damage or injury if he or she had been an adult.
“Willful” is a legal term of art that means a person intends to take a specific action, and may have intended the result as well. For example, if a child throws a rock at a window, the child has willfully caused property damage. It isn't always clear whether an action is willful, however. If the same child throws a rock in an attempt to hit a can placed on a tree stump, and the rock ends up hitting a window instead, is the act still "willful"? There are arguments to be made either way. The person whose window was broken would say that the child willfully threw the rock, so in that sense the act was willful.
Under Section 9-1-3, parents are jointly and severally liable, along with their child, for the injuries and damages resulting from the child's actions. This means a claimant can seek damages from the parent and child, collectively, or from either one of them individually. Parents’ liability is limited, however, to $1,500 for any single act. In other words, if a minor purposefully damages someone else's vehicle, and the cost to repair the vehicle is $2,000, the vehicle owner can only collect $1,500 from the minor's parent.
Although parents’ liability is limited, the minor’s is not. Claimants can pursue the unpaid portion of losses from the minor who caused the damage. Also, if a minor would be liable under a different law, section 9-1-3 does not limit or otherwise affect that liability.
Parental responsibility laws often focus on providing specific remedies for specific actions. However, the "common law," which is a non-statutory set of legal principles, may impose liability. Specifically, a common law treatise known as the "Restatement (Second) of Torts" provides:
"A parent is under a duty to exercise reasonable care so to control his minor child as to prevent it from intentionally harming others or from so conducting itself as to create an unreasonable risk of bodily harm to them, if the parent (a) knows or has reason to know that he has the ability to control his child, and (b) knows of or should know of the necessity and opportunity of exercising such control."
To illustrate how this might work, suppose a parent knows his or her child talks on the cell phone while driving, and does everything except pay attention to the road. The child has even collected five citations for distracted driving in less than a year. The parent knows about this, but still allows the child to drive, and takes no steps to curb the child's phone use. If that child causes an accident while talking on the phone, the parent could be considered negligent for allowing the child to drive and failing to take a reasonable steps to prevent the child from causing foreseeable harm. Learn more about Negligence, Duty of Care, and Fault for an Accident.