Many parents don’t realize that they can be held legally liable for the acts of their minor children. Almost every state has enacted some version of this kind of law, although the specifics vary, and it usually applies to both intentional and negligent acts committed by the child.
Parental Responsibility Laws
Parental responsibility laws have been a cornerstone of our legal system for more than a century. The first state to enact a law of this type was Hawaii in 1846, and to this day Hawaii’s version of the law remains one of the most encompassing in its application. In most states, the concept of parental responsibility applies to both the criminal and civil acts of the child.
Even though it may seem unfair for a parent to be held legally responsible for the acts of a child, state legislatures have decided that an innocent victim should not bear the financial burden of property damage or medical expenses that resulted through no fault of their own.
The reasoning behind these laws is that parents have a legal obligation to control their minor children, and to teach them better life skills so that the children may make better decisions. If a parent fails to fulfill their legal obligation to control their child, and the child then causes harm to another person or to property, the parent is legally and financially responsible. It is for this reason, if a child is negligent, that negligence is transferred to the parent.
Legal Age of Personal Responsibility
A minor is any person who has not yet reached the age of adulthood. The age at which a child legally becomes an adult varies from state to state, but in most states that age is 18. Most states that have parental responsibility laws have established the rule that parents can be held responsible for the acts of their child only until the child reaches 18 years of age However, at least one state has expanded parental responsibility to include children up to 21 years of age in certain situations.
Example of Parental Responsibility Laws in New Jersey
Parents may be liable for a child’s acts, but only for damage to railroads, public utilities or school property. In those instances a parent’s financial responsibility is capped at $5,000.00.
Parental Liability for a Minor’s Acts While Driving a Car
Usually, most parental liability laws include any damages a child may cause while driving a car. However, many states also have specific statutes further defining the legal liability of a parent or other adult in that situation. Those statutes are typically called “sponsorship laws.”
In those states, anyone under the age of 18 must have a “sponsor” in order to obtain a driver’s license. The sponsor is typically a parent, but may also be an employer. However, if the minor is negligent or engages in willful misconduct while driving a car, then damages resulting from the conduct can be transferred to the adult sponsor. This is true even if the sponsor had no actual control over the minor or even the vehicle. If the minor does cause any damage to others, the sponsor may be legally liable to the injured person up to the full amount of the damages.