Parental Liability for Child's Tortious Acts?

Question arising from this thread. My sense is that at common law, parents are not liable for the tortious acts of their children. Of course, a state can legislate such liability.

Is there a general rule in the US on this question, something that most states have done?

I think that young children lack the capacity for legal culpability. At some point that interpretation will need specific adjudication, since some children have better mental and social development than others.

I think the culpability of parents would be limited to specific negligence that at least directly contributed to acts of the child. Teaching your children to shoot trespassers would certainly be criminally negligent. Teaching them to distrust all strangers might be a poor choice, but it would not be specifically negligent.


My recollection from my torts class lo those many years ago is that at common law, non-intentional but nonetheless tortious injuries by children are left where they lie. Children are liable for intentional torts, but the parents are the ones mandated to pay.

The exception is when children do some activity that is particularly adult in character, where bystanders would be able to reasonably assume that anyone doing that activity is an adult and can therefore be held to a reasonableness standard. Driving is the classic example. Again, in the run of these cases, the parents are the ones who will be responsible for paying damages.

If you want a cite, you’re going to have to ask someone less lazy.


At common law, parents aren’t generally vicariously liable for the torts of the child, but most states statutorily make parents liable for the willful and intentional torts of the child up to a certain dollar amount. There are conditions where a parent may be sued if the child is acting as the parent’s agent, and a parent may be sued for their own negligence in allowing the child to do something dangerous, like play with fireworks near you house, and if the child has a history of harming people or property and the parents are aware of it, like if their little darling has a history of biting the postman or attacking orther kids, they may be liable if they do not mitigate the danger their child presents by keeping him away from the postman or letting him play with children he/she is likely to attack.

Can’t speak for any state other than Wisconsin, which does hold parents liable for willful, malicious or wanton damages or injuries caused by their minor children (Wis stats 895.035). Liability is limited to $2,500 per wrongful act. The statute doesn’t cover acts of negligence by the minor child, but the parent could be held liable for negligent supervision.

IANAL, etc.

Make that “not letting him play with children he/she is likely to attack.”

Forgot to ask: someone’s little angel get into your rose bushes, counselor? :smiley:

No, no – see the link in the OP. This is purely theoretical, from a Judge Judy case.

Something else I thought of: for reasons I’m not entirely clear on, it’s fairly common to sue children in an attempt to go after their parent’s homeowners insurance. When I was a law clerk for a federal judge in Houston a few years ago, there was a deprivation of civil rights case where several teens burned a cross on a black family’s lawn where they were going after the teen’s parent’s homeowner’s insurance, and my college fraternity had a member sue several other members for assault and slander attempting to do the same. The judgement in the firts suit was for millions.

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.

I just realized I didn’t directly answer the question.

The answer is, parents are not generally responsible for the torts of their children. (My post above lists exception to this general rule.)
(Also, although IAAL, I’m probably not licensed in your state. Even if I am, I’m not your lawyer, and this is general information and not reliable legal advice. If you are faced witha real-world issue, see a lawyer licensed in your state for that.)

Would this be part of a proposed Uniform code? Or is it just coincidental that IL and WI have the same liability limits?

Here are some more general survey materials: (Canada and US)

Is it theoretical? JJ makes rulings against parents all the time. It’s a pretty common theme on that show. So how can she get away with such a blatant violation of the law? Is it because her show is more like a game show than an actual court of law?

Judge Judy is technically an arbitrator; people on her show agree to dismiss their real life cases and have her arbitrate them on the teevee. She doesn’t even have a law license in California. Here’s more on how it works:

Not sure, but I doubt there’s any uniform code in this area. Not a formal one, anyway. My guess? It’s probably not a complete coincidence. Legislatures often use statutes from elsewhere as a model. (or, perhaps more accurately, the lobbyist who pushed the idea did so.)

Same thing for ordinances. I’ve drafted more than a few, and frequently will look at what other municipalities have done in the area. Sometimes I find something I can use, at least as a starting place.

No uniform code or model act. Just part of a movement. As **Random **said, there was a lot of copying by states.