California parents’ liability for children’s acts | Jim Porter
July 16, 2015
If your 17-year old accidently shoots someone or crashes the family car or crashes his or her own car, are you liable? What if your 16-year old fights at school or scribbles graffiti and gets caught or signs a contract to buy a Tesla without any money. What are your legal responsibilities as a parent of minor children?
Basically you are on the hook for everything. Well … maybe not.
Parent's Liability for Their Children's Contracts
Under early California law (B.P. — Before Porter), minors were males under the age of 21 and females under the age of 18. That was subsequently changed to age 21 for both males and females, then in 1971 to age 18.
Parents are generally not liable for their minor children's contracts unless the parent co-signs or the child is acting on behalf of the parents as an agent. If Junior routinely charges on dad's account at the local hardware store, dad will be paying.
Under the Family Code, a minor may generally make a contract in the same manner as an adult. However, almost all contracts with minors are voidable and may be disaffirmed by the minor before they are 18 or within a reasonable time afterwards.
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However, minors entering into guilty pleas in criminal cases as part of a plea bargain are bound. A contract with a minor relating to real property like a house is void. Being a one-way street, adults are generally bound by contracts with minors.
Amazingly, to me anyway, if a minor disaffirms a contract when turning 18, there is no requirement of restitution or restoration. Conclusion: contract with a minor at your peril.
Parents Generally Not Responsible for Children's Torts
What about liability for a child's negligent acts or willful misconduct? What if a child crashes a car, smashes another boarder on the slopes, or accidently burns down a building, or worse yet, intentionally beats someone up or vandalizes property.
Generally in the absence of a specific law, a parent is not liable for the torts of his or her minor children. This can result in hardships, so California has adopted laws making parents liable for their children's acts in a few specific situations.
Parents Knowledge of Child's Prior Misconduct
Parents are liable for their child's negligent act if they know or have reason to know of specific problems from prior misconduct. For example, under the Ellis case, a babysitter may recover from the parent for not being warned that the child habitually attacked babysitters.
Continual rock throwing by a child and complaints by neighbors to the mother, justified the inference she had notice of his dangerous proclivities and past misconduct, and Mom became responsible.
Civil Code §1714 — Willful Misconduct
The Civil Code imputes liability to the parents or guardians having custody and control of minors for acts of willful misconduct that result in injury or death or injury to the property of another. Liability of the parent or guardian may not exceed $25,000 for each tort of the minor.
Parents and guardians face liability for willful misconduct resulting in the defacement of property with paint or a similar substance which is capped at $25,000. Also see Government Code §38772 for parental liability for graffiti without a cap.
Insurers are not liable for the conduct imputed to a parent or guardian for any amount in excess of $10,000.
A parent or guardian is liable under the Education Code for damages caused by (a) willful misconduct resulting in injury or death to a student, employee, or volunteer for a school, or (b) willful cutting, defacement or other injury to school property, or property of a school employee. Liability, adjusted for inflation, is $18,700.
Under the Penal code, a parent or legal guardian is liable to a merchant or library for their kid's theft—not less than $50 nor more than $500, plus costs, plus liability for the retail value of the merchandise if it is not recovered.
Discharge of a firearm by a minor is imputed to the parent or guardian having custody and control. Liability is capped at $30,000 for one person, $60,000 for a single occurrence. Liability, like for willful misconduct, is in addition to potentially broader liability otherwise imposed by law. E.g., negligent entrustment of a firearm.
Under the Vehicle Code, any person co-signing an application for a driver's license, including a parent or guardian, is liable for the minor's automobile torts with a liability cap of $15,000 for one person, $30,000 for a single occurrence and $5,000 for property damage.
If a minor, whether licensed or not, drives with the express or implied permission of the parent or guardian, responsibility is imputed to the parent with a $15,000, $30,000, $5,000 limit. If a minor is driving as an agent of the parent, perhaps on an errand, there may be no liability limit.
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada, with offices in Truckee, Tahoe City and Reno. Jim's practice areas include: real estate, development, construction, business, HOAs, contracts, personal injury, mediation and other transactional matters. He may be reached at email@example.com or http://www.portersimon.com.