Through statutes commonly known as parental responsibility laws, parents and/or guardians can be held liable when their children cause property damage or bodily injury. Usually, the child must act intentionally or maliciously in order for financial responsibility to extend to the parent, but parents may also be on the legal hook when their minor child causes an accident. It all depends on the specifics of the state's law.
In this article, we'll explore some of the key facets of Vermont's parental responsibility law, which you can find at Vermont Statutes, Title 15, Section 901. And since Vermont, like most states, sets the age of majority at 18, keep in mind that the law we're discussing here only applies when a child is under the age of 18 when he or she commits the underlying action.
Under Vermont Statutes, Title 15, Section 901, 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.
It's important to note that "maliciously or willfully" means the minor acted purposefully, or at least with a certain recklessness or clear disregard for the possibly detrimental consequences of their purposeful actions.
If the minor merely acts carelessly and ends up causing some kind of accident (including a car accident), that is not enough to trigger a parent’s liability under Vermont's parental responsibility law. However, the statute would apply if a minor commits vandalism or an act of assault and battery against someone else.
Under Section 901, it does not matter whether the damaged property is public or private. Accordingly, individuals or businesses, municipalities, or any organization may bring a claim and collect damages from a minor's parents. In other words, this law is applicable to practically any and all personal injury and/or property damage maliciously or willfully caused by a minor. But there's a catch, which we'll cover in the next section.
A parent's liability under section 901 is limited to $5,000, plus reimbursement of the claimant's costs of bringing the case to court.
So, for example, if a minor maliciously damages someone's car, and the total cost to repair the vehicle is $6,500; the victim will only be able to recover $5,000 from the minor's parent or guardian. This limit applies even if multiple children of the same parent cause damage. In other words, parents/guardians are limited to $5,000 in liability under Section 901 for all losses stemming from a single incident.
If a parent or guardian does not have custody (for whatever reason), he or she cannot be held liable for any measure of damages under section 901, which specifically states that it "shall not apply to a parent legally deprived or relieved of the custody of said minor prior to the commission of the act complained of."
Section 901 also requires law enforcement to make a reasonable effort to inform potential claimants of their rights under Vermont's parental responsibility law. So, if a person has been injured by a minor's actions, or a business has suffered property damage due to vandalism committed by a minor, and law enforcement gets involved, they must take reasonable steps to let the person or business know about section 901 and the right to make a claim against the minor's parents.
Even in cases where section 901 does not apply, parents may find themselves financially responsible for their children’s actions under the "common law," which is a non-statutory set of legal rules that is based on decades of court decisions and legal treatises (like the "Restatement of Torts")
Though it won't be the easiest case for an injured person to make, a parent may be held legally liable for personal injuries and property damage if they know of their child’s dangerous tendencies, but they fail to take reasonable steps to properly control the child, and someone ends up suffering foreseeable harm as a result of that failure. Learn more about Negligence and the Duty of Care.