Are parents liable if Junior is a jerk?
If your 17 year old accidentally shoots someone or crashes the family car or crashes her own car, are you liable as a parent? What if your 16 year old fights at school or scribbles graffiti on a building and gets caught or signs a contract to buy a sports car without any money. Are you responsible?
Just what are the legal responsibilities of a parent of minor children?
Let’s discuss the liability of Mom and Dad for their kids’ contracts. Generally speaking, parents are not liable when their children are unable to honor their own contracts, unless the parents co-sign or unless the children are acting on behalf of the parents as agents, rather than on their own behalf. So if Junior routinely charges on Dad’s account at the local hardware store, Dad will be paying.
The law essentially assumes anyone entering into a contract with a minor is taking advantage of the minor. The result is that in many cases a minor can simply walk away from a signed contract without liability, until a reasonable time after they turn 18. The adult is generally bound by the contract. Contract with a minor at your peril.
Parental non-responsibility for their kids’ contracts is one thing, but what about liability for your children’s negligent acts and willful misconduct?
What if your child crashes the car, smashes another boarder on the slopes, or accidentally burns down a building ” or worse yet, intentionally beats someone up or vandalizes property?
Except under certain codes discussed below, or when the child is acting on the parent’s behalf, a parent is generally not liable for the acts of his or her minor child, even if the child is negligent, falls below the standard of care for a kid that age.
This means if a minor child carelessly injures you, you have no recourse against the parents in most situations. Of course, any recovery against the minor will be limited by the value of the minor’s assets. Judgments are good for 10 years.
This can result in hardships, so California has adopted laws making parents liable for their children’s acts in a few specific situations.
There are eight situations when parents are responsible. First, 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, a babysitter may recover from the parent for not being warned that the child habitually attacked people ” particularly babysitters.
Knowing that your child frequently blacks out or has been drinking may make you responsible if you let her drive the family car.
A second law makes parents liable for any act of willful ” intentional as opposed to unintentional negligent ” misconduct that results in injury or death to another person or damage to another’s property. An example is parental liability for a minor’s hacking into computers from home. Defacement of property is a good example. The maximum parental liability under this code is $25,000.
A third code section imposes liability on parents for their minor’s willful misconduct to students, school employees and school property ” not to exceed $10,000.
Yet another law imposes liability on parents for their minor’s petty theft from merchants and theft of books from libraries. Recovery against the parent is limited to the value of the merchandise or book, plus from $50 to $500.
A fifth law imposes liability on parents for injuries caused by the discharge of a firearm by their child if the parent permitted the minor to have the firearm or left the firearm accessible to the minor. Liability of the parents is limited to $30,000 per injured person, $60,000 total.
What happens if you let your child drive the family car and he negligently injures or kills someone? Of course, the child is responsible. Generally, however, you are not responsible unless your child is driving as your agent, perhaps on an errand, unless you fit within one of the five laws noted above. I haven’t seen any cases finding parents responsible for allowing their minor to drive friends in violation of laws restricting under age 16 driving, but it is coming.
Under a separate law, car owners that allow others ” minors being no exception ” to drive their cars are responsible for injuries caused up to $15,000 per injured, $30,000 total, and parents co-signing on a minor’s driver’s license are liable up to the same limits.
Once again, as a general rule, parents are not responsible for the contracts of their minor children, and are responsible for their civil wrongs, but only in eight limited circumstances.
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter· Simon, with offices in Truckee, South Lake Tahoe and Reno. He is a mediator and was the Governor’s appointee to the Bipartisan McPherson Commission and the California Fair Political Practices Commission. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at the firm’s Web site http://www.portersimon.com.
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