Under parental responsibility laws, parents and/or legal guardians may find themselves financially responsible for damages caused by a minor child's intentional or malicious acts. In some states, parents are even liable when their children cause a mishap like a car accident. In this article, we'll look at South Dakota's parental responsibility laws -- when parents might be on the legal hook for their child's conduct, and the financial limits of that liability.
Like most states, South Dakota sets the legal age of majority at 18. So these laws only apply to the custodial parents/guardians of children who were under the age of 18 when the underlying act was committed.
Under S.D. Codified Laws section 25-5-15, parents who have custody of a child will be civilly liable if that child maliciously or willfully causes bodily injury or property damage. The meaning of "willful" is important. An action is usually deemed "willful" if a person intends (1) to take the specific action and/or (2) cause a specific result. For example, if a child throws a baseball, his actions will be considered "willful." If that baseball hits a window, it may need to be shown that the child intended to hit the window.
Victims are not limited to individuals, according to section 25-5-15. Entities such as businesses, churches, or cities may also make a claim against a parent for damages caused by a minor.
Section 25-5-15 limits parents' liability to $2,500, plus court costs. So, for example, if a child causes property damage of $5,000 the victim could only recover $2,500.00 of their losses from the child's parents. The victim could attempt to recover any unpaid amounts from the minor directly. But in most situations, that won't be a fruitful endeavor.
Liability is also limited to "actual damages." Actual damages refer to actual, out-of-pocket expenses. So with bodily injury, this would typically be the amount of medical bills incurred. For property damage, it would be the amount to repair or replace the damaged property. Actual damages does not include non-economic damages -- like compensation for pain and suffering.
Another important note: Parents can take it up with the court if they feel they should not be responsible for any of the damages caused by their child. These disputes are handled on a case-by-case basis, but the parents will probably have to come up with a pretty compelling argument, i.e. they took extensive measures to prevent their child from taking a certain action, and the child took that action anyways.
No Application to Motor Vehicle Accidents
Section 25-5-15 does not apply to damages a child causes while operating a motor vehicle. So if a minor negligently causes property damage, or bodily injury, while driving a car, insurance is likely to be the only source of recovery. In most cases, minors are covered by their parents' insurance -- so it is not usually a problem.
No Foster Parent Liability
Under S.D. Codified Laws section 25-5-23.1, foster parents are not liable for the actions of their foster children -- whether that conduct is negligent, willful, or malicious. However, a foster may still be held liable under the "common law," as discussed below.
Even in cases where South Dakota's parental responsibility laws do not apply, parents may find themselves responsible for their children's actions under the "common law," which is a non-statutory collection of legal principles that has been developed over time.
Essentially, parents who know their child has a propensity to act in a particularly dangerous manner may be expected to take reasonable steps to prevent the child from causing foreseeable harm to others.
Suppose parents know their child comes home from school each day and hits golf balls out of the back yard across the neighborhood. If a parent allows this behavior to continue, and the minor damages a house or hurts someone with an errant golf ball, there is a good chance the parent will be responsible for the damages that result. Learn more about Negligence, the Duty of Care, and Fault for an Injury.