Parental Responsibility Laws in Tennessee

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

By , Attorney · Cooley Law School

Under parental responsibility laws, which have been passed by every state in one form or another, a parent may be held financially responsible for certain damages and injuries caused by a minor child's conduct. The circumstances under which a parent might be liable vary from state to state. Usually the minor's conduct must be intentional or malicious, but some states hold a parent liable when their minor child causes a mishap like a car accident.

What does Tennessee's parental responsibility law have to say? In this article, we'll discuss the main points of this statute, which can be found at Tennessee Code Title 37, Chapter 10, Part 1. (Note: There is no direct link to the statute, so if you want to see the full text you'll have to navigate to the citation from the main page of the Tennessee Code online).

Parental Responsibility for Personal Injury and Property Damage in Tennessee

Under Tennessee Code Title 37, Chapter 10, Part 1, parents and legal guardians can be held financially responsible if a minor child in their custody maliciously or willfully causes personal injury or property damage.

"Willful" is a legal term of art that means a person intended to take a specific action, and may have even intended a specific result. That is a heightened standard that requires more than mere carelessness on the part of the minor. So if a minor causes a car accident in Tennessee, that is not enough to trigger a parent's liability for the resulting injuries or vehicle damage (assuming the crash really was an accident). However, the statute would apply if a minor commits an act of vandalism or an assault and battery on someone else.

Note: Like most states, Tennessee sets the age of majority at 18. So, the state's parental responsibility law only applies to the custodial parent of a child who was under 18 when the harmful act took place.

Under Tennessee Code section 37-10-101, a corporation, county, town, village, school district, or state entity -- in addition to individuals -- may collect damages from a minor's parents.

Financial Limits of a Parent's Liability in Tennessee

A parent's liability under section 37-10-102 is limited to $10,000, plus reimbursement of the claimant's costs of bringing the claim to court.

This $10,000 amount is limited to "actual damages." These are the out-of-expenses associated with the injury or property damage. For example, if an individual suffered an injury, the "actual damages" would be the amount of medical bills the individual incurred in relation to the injury. "Actual damages" does not include non-economic damages, such as "pain and suffering."

Tennessee Has Codified the "Common Law" Rule

Tennessee Code section 37-10-103 explains when parents and guardians may be financially responsible for their children's actions even if the child's actions are not malicious or willful.

This law says that a parent or guardian may be liable for the activities of a minor who is in their control and causes personal injury or property damage if:

  • the parent/guardian knows, or should know, the child has a tendency to commit wrongful acts that could be expected to cause injury and/or property damage
  • the parent/guardian has an opportunity to control the child, and
  • the parent/guardian fails to exercise reasonable means to prevent the injurious activity.

A parent will be presumed to know of a child's tendency to commit wrongful acts if the child has previously been charged and found responsible for such actions.

An example may help illustrate. Suppose a parent knows that their minor child comes home from school each day and throws rocks at houses around the neighborhood. In that situation, the parent knows that the child has a tendency to commit a tortious activity that could be expected to cause personal injury or property damage. If the parent fails to exercise reasonable means to prevent the child from throwing rocks at houses in the neighborhood, and the minor damages someone's property, or hurts someone with a thrown rock, there is a good chance the parent will be responsible for the damages that result.

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