Not precisely my area, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to answer a law question from the esteemed Bricker, so I asked on of my partners (who does practice in the tort area), and followed up with a little research of my own.
This breaks down into two questions, a point that others have already touched on. First question: Can a minor be liable for a tort?
Under common law, Illinois followed what’s called the 7 year rule, at least for negligence-type torts. (I think most states did the same.) If the kid is less than 7, he’s irrebutably presumed to be incapable of negligence. There is some authority that if the tort is an intentional tort, even a 6 year old can be liable.
Between 7 and 14, the presumption still exists, but it is rebuttable. If it can be shown that the kid was capable of understanding the consequences of his act, he can be found to be negligent. Over 14, he’s treated as an adult. Some cases apply an “adult activities” test. If the activity being engaged in is the type normally done by an adult, adult standards apply.
Okay, that’s nice in theory, but most kids don’t have an assets, so a judgment against them is likely to be pointless, unless the plaintiff can reach the parents, or find some insurance that provides coverage.
There are four ways that can happen. First, insurance. If he is liable, the kid might be covered under his parent’s homeowner’s or renter’s policy. Also, if the negligent act is automobile-related, there might be an applicable car insurance policy. (Even if it’s the parents’ policy, it might provide coverage to members of the household. Strictly speaking, the existence of such a policy doesn’t mean that the parents are legally liable for the kid’s tort, but from the point of view of the plaintiff and with respect to the parent’s future insurance premiums, there’s not much practical difference.)
Second, agency. If the kid is liable and he was acting on behalf of the parent or household at the time (say, doing some family shopping, or working for the family business), the parents might be liable on an agency theory.
Third, negligent entrustment/supervision. If a parent knows his kid is a reckless driver, and hands him the keys to the family car, the parent might be on the hook. Or if the kid is a violent psychopath, and they buy him a gun or big hunting knife for his birthday, they might be liable. But these kinds of theories require some sort of advance knowledge on the part of the parents. Technically, the parent really isn’t being held responsible for the kid’s act - the parent is committing his own tort.
Fourth, there might be parental responsibilty statute. Illinois has one, but it’s of little practical use, because it’s capped at $2500, and only applies to intentional torts. In the non-Judge Judy world, you don’t file tort claims where your recoverable damages are this small.