Should Parents be Held Liable for the Wrongful Acts of Their Children?

Lately there seems to be a great number of young adults making the news for causing harm to others. Unthinkable acts are being initiated by kids such as setting fellow students on fire, sexually assaulting an intoxicated and unconscious student, attacking and beating homeless people, and excessive group bullying leading to suicide.

I think we can all agree that this type of wrongful conduct is inexcusable. As a lawyer, the question I’m being asked is whether or not the parents of these young adults can be held financially liable for the negligent and intentional acts of their children.

In California and most other states, the answer is yes. Not only can a young adult be held liable for his or her wrongful conduct, but to a certain extent, so can the parents.

In most cases, it comes down to whether or not a parent knew or through reasonable diligence, should have known of the child’s dangerous propensities.

When driving a car in California, a child under 18 who desires a driver’s license is required to have the application signed by both parents or guardian. Under California law, the parents are automatically liable for the child’s negligence in causing an accident or injury. The California Legislature has limited this liability to $15,000 per injured person and up to $30,000 for all damages involving multiple people. Any property damage is limited to $5,000.

Now here’s an important point to remember. In some cases, if the parent negligently supervises his or her child, liability can be unlimited. Factors include inexperience, lack of license, previous recklessness, physical infirmities, age, and intoxication.

If you have a child who you know or should know (if you’re paying attention) is unruly or hard-to-manage and that child causes injury to someone else, then you’re probably going to be held financially responsible for the injuries and damages.

Long ago, the court held in Singer v. Marx, 144 Cal.App.2d 637 (1956) , “The parent has a special power of control over the conduct of the child, which he is under a duty to exercise reasonably for the protection of others. He may thus be liable for failure … to take reasonable efforts to restrain and correct [the child] when he manifests a tendency to beat other children with a stick,” or engages in other dangerous behavior.”

So, liability will attach where parents know or should know of their child’s past actions and fail to warn others to be on guard. In fact, the California Civil Code holds that parents will face liability for “any act of willful misconduct” by their children that “results in injury or death to another person or damage to another’s property.” To avoid financial devastation, the same Code limits parents’ liability for non-vehicular caused events to $25,000 for each separate act of their children.

Additional liability is imposed upon parents when their child causes injury or death to a student, employee or volunteer for a school district or private school, as well as for their child’s willful injury to real or personal school property or the personal property of a school employee. Again, liability is limited to a maximum of $10,000. The parents also may be held accountable for any reward paid by a school district, in an amount not to exceed $10,000.

What if your child steals merchandise from a store? In California, the parents can be personally liable for damages up to $500.

It’s important that parents understand and appreciate that in situations where they know, or should know, of their child’s propensity to act wrongfully or cause harm to others, parents can (and should) be held financially liable for the wrongful acts of their children.

In my capacity as both a lawyer and father to two children, I feel the bottom line is that parents must take a keen interest in the upbringing of their children. Teaching our kids the difference between right and wrong is our responsibility and should not be delegated to some else. When it comes to raising kids, we all need to walk our talk and teach by example.

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