What Is the Illinois Parental Responsibility Law?

Parents and guardians in Illinois can be held legally responsible for injuries and other losses caused by a child's actions.

By , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

When can parents in Illinois be held legally responsible for personal injury and other harm caused by their children? Like a lot of states, Illinois has passed a "parental responsibility law" that can apply in these situations. In this article, we'll cover the specifics of this Illinois law, and explain other legal theories that might be used to hold parents liable for harm caused by their minor children.

The Illinois "Parental Responsibility" Statute

A set of rules in the Illinois Compiled Statutes, starting at 740 ILCS 115 and commonly referred to as the Illinois "Parental Responsibility Law" gives potential liability to parents and "legal guardians" when their minor child causes certain kinds of damage or harm.

Let's take a closer look at some of the key components of this law.

Who Can Be Liable Under the Illinois Parental Responsibility Law?

For purposes of the statute:

  • a "parent" includes both biological and adopted parents
  • a legal guardian means "a person appointed guardian, or given custody, of a minor by a circuit court of the State" (it doesn't apply to an adult who has merely been appointed "guardian" of a minor by a juvenile court in Illinois).

Who Is a "Minor" Under the Illinois Parental Responsibility Law?

The law makes clear that a "minor" is a person who:

  • is above the age of 11 years, but not yet 19 years of age
  • hasn't gone through the legal "emancipation" process, and
  • lives with a parent or legal guardian.

So, parents and legal guardians can still be on the legal hook for a child's actions even after the child is 18 (until the child's 19th birthday, to be exact), and there's a legal gray area for children under 11 years of age: The state's Parental Responsibility Law doesn't specifically apply in that situation, but the parent or guardian may still be legally responsible for the child's actions under traditional fault and liability principles (more on these later).

What Conduct Can Trigger Liability Under the Illinois Parental Responsibility Law?

Parents and legal guardians are not automatically liable for injuries and other losses ("damages" in the language of the law) every time their child causes harm to someone else. In fact, the Illinois Parental Responsibility Law doesn't hold parents liable for most true "accidents" in which the minor was at fault but was merely negligent.

Instead, the law only creates parental and guardian liability for the "willful" or "malicious" acts of a minor when that conduct causes injury to another person or to someone else's property

So, the minor's conduct must have been intentional, to some extent. That means liability won't usually extend to parents when a minor causes an injury or some other harm due to carelessness or negligence, assuming the minor didn't intend to cause injury or damage. Learn more about how negligence works in injury cases.

What Kinds of Damages Can an Illinois Parent Be Responsible For?

It's important to note that, under the Illinois Parental Responsibility Law, parents or legal guardians are only liable for "actual damages" caused by the minor's conduct —that means compensation will be limited to expenses like:

  • medical bills resulting from injuries caused by an assault
  • payment for damage to property (caused by vandalism, for example) and
  • other losses that can be easily quantified.

It also means that the parent or legal guardian isn't liable for non-economic damages like "pain and suffering," which can really add up in a typical personal injury claim. But keep in mind that pain and suffering damages would be on the table if the parents were to be held liable outside of this Illinois statute (more on this later).

Parents Can Be Ordered to Pay the Plaintiff's Attorney's Fees Under the Illinois Parental Responsibility Law

The statute also makes clear that, when a plaintiff is successful in a lawsuit against a parent or legal guardian under the Illinois Parental Responsibility Law, the plaintiff may be awarded "reasonable" attorney's fees, meaning that the parent or legal guardian could be ordered to reimburse the plaintiff for any money paid for legal services in connection with the lawsuit.

Is There a "Cap" On Damages Under the Illinois Parental Responsibility Law?

Yes. 740 ILCS 115/5 places a financial limit on parental liability, saying that it can't exceed:

  • $20,000 in actual damages for the first occurrence where the minor's willful or malicious act causes injury, and
  • $30,000 for any "pattern or practice" of willful or malicious acts
  • in addition to taxable court costs and attorney's fees.

Parents May Still Be Liable Apart From the Illinois Statute

The Illinois Parental Responsibility Law specifically states that it's intended to limit the potential liability of parents for their child's actions—or limit the recovery of damages by an injured party—"in any other cause of action where the liability of the parent or legal guardian is predicated on a common law basis." We touched on this earlier, and this language of the statute means that a parent or legal guardian may still be legally responsible for a child's actions under traditional civil fault principles (that's what "common law" refers to here).

In other words, parents who know of a child's tendency to act recklessly or carelessly may be under a general legal obligation to take reasonable steps to prevent that child from causing foreseeable harm to others.

So, if a parent knows that their child has a habit of texting while driving—let's say a 17 year-old has racked up four traffic citations for "distracted driving" in less than one year—and the child ends up causing a car accident while sending a text message, then the parent could be considered negligent for still allowing the child to drive without any restrictions (taking their phone away, for example). And that liability could arise in Illinois even under circumstances in which the state's Parental Responsibility Law doesn't apply.

Note that in the scenario mentioned above, the parent's car insurance policy will likely cover any accident caused by the teen driver (unless they've been specifically excluded from the policy). So, the insurance company will absorb at least some amount of financial responsibility for losses suffered by others (like injuries and vehicle damage) in an accident caused by the teen driver. Learn more about what drivers and vehicles are covered by car insurance, and parents' liability for a teen driver's car accident.

Parents Can Be Civilly Liable for Minors' Shoplifting in Illinois

In addition to the "willful or malicious acts" discussed above, when a minor commits the criminal offense of "retail theft" or shoplifting, 720 ILCS 5/16-27 makes a parent or legal guardian civilly liable for:

  • actual damages equal to the full retail value of the stolen merchandise, and
  • an amount not less than $100 nor more than $1,000, and
  • the store owner's attorney's fees and court costs in pursuing the civil action over the shoplifting.

Getting Help With an Illinois Parental Responsibility Case

If you're facing (or thinking of bringing) an injury-related case under Illinois laws on parental responsibility, you might want to discuss your situation (and your options) with an experienced legal professional. Get tips on hiring and working with a lawyer.

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