Generally speaking, a parent is not automatically liable for an automobile accident that is caused by their child. Whether a parent can be held liable when their child injures someone else in general depends on each state’s laws, the nature of the injury, and several other factors. Although parents were not traditionally held liable for their children’s actions, many states now uphold statues that provide for direct as well as indirect parental liability. 

An example of this would be how many states require parents to be financially responsible for the damage caused by their children. Therefore, if your child destroys someone else’s property, you may have to pay for it.

A parent may be liable for damages caused by their child under the following situations: 

  1. Failure to Supervise: The parent was negligent in failing to supervise their child, which led to the child undertaking actions that caused the injury. The injury caused must have been a foreseeable consequence of the parent failing to control the child. An example of this would be if a parent left the keys in the car with a six year old, who had previously tried to drive the car;
  2. Parental Negligence: The parent was negligent by entrusting a vehicle to a child they know to be either incompetent or reckless. An example of this would be a parent lending their car to their teenage child, when they are aware that they use the vehicle to go drag racing on public city streets; and/or
  3. Family Purpose Doctrine: The child was using the car for a “family purpose” with the consent of the parent. An example of this would be a parent maintaining a family vehicle, and a teenager taking that vehicle to go get groceries for the family. If that teenager gets in a wreck, the parent may also be held accountable for the negligent actions of that teenager. 

Additionally, it is important to understand the difference between vicarious liability and direct liability. Vicarious liability refers to being held liable for the actions of a subordinate; such as an employer being held liable for the actions of their employee, or a parent being held liable for the actions of their child. Some situations in which parents may be vicariously liable for their minor children’s conduct may include:

  • Agency Theory: If a child commits a wrongful act while following directions from their parent, then the parent may be vicariously liable;
  • Family Car Doctrine: A parent who owns a vehicle will be vicariously liable for their child’s wrongful conduct when the child drives under the parent’s express or implied consent; and
  • Permissive Use Doctrine: In some states, an automobile owner is vicariously liable for anyone’s tortious conduct when the car is driven with the owner’s consent. Under this theory, an owner-parent may be held liable for their minor child’s wrongful driving.

Direct liability means that a person is only held liable for their own actions. Parents have a duty to control their minor children and may be directly liable for breaching their duties to supervise and control their child.

Additionally, parents may be directly liable for the actions of their child under the theory of negligent entrustment. What this means is that if a parent entrusts a child with an instrument that could reasonably cause a risk of harm to others, then the parent will be liable for any harm that results. A vehicle would be an example of such an instrument.

What Does the Injured Party Need to Prove?

In a lawsuit, the injured party is tasked with proving their claim. This is known as the burden of proof. There are three main doctrines under which an injured party may prove their claim.

The first of these is failure to supervise. In order to succeed in a claim against a parent for failure to supervise, the injured party must show that:

  • The child acted negligently;
  • The child’s negligent act caused the injury;
  • The parent was negligent by failing to supervise the child; and
  • If not for the parent’s failure to supervise the child, the injury would not have occurred.

Parental negligence is another commonly utilized doctrine. In order to sue for parental negligence, the injured party must show that: 

  • The parent entrusted the vehicle to the child;
  • The parent knew or should have known that the child was either not competent to operate the vehicle, or would be reckless in their operation of the vehicle;
  • The plaintiff was harmed; and
  • The child’s incompetence or recklessness is what caused the harm to the plaintiff.

Finally, an injured party may invoke the family purpose doctrine. The family purpose doctrine varies widely from state to state. In some states, parents are generally liable any time their children are negligent behind the wheel. In other states, it is required that the child have the consent of the parent to use the car, or for the child to be using the family vehicle to fulfill some action on behalf of the parent.

Are There Limitations to Laws Regarding Parental Liability for the Acts of Their Child? Do These Laws Apply to Anyone Else?

Most states place a limit on the amount of money a parent would have to pay in damages. An example of this would be how Iowa limits the amount to $2,000 per act. In addition to monetary limits, these laws generally have a minimum age cap. If a child is too young, commonly eight years old and younger, a parent will not be deemed liable for the child’s actions.

Parents will no longer be responsible for their child’s actions when the child is emancipated, but has not yet reached eighteen. A child is emancipated when they are seen as an adult in the eyes of the law. An example of this would be when they get married, or join the military. A court must declare that the child is emancipated.

These laws usually apply to anyone who has custody and control over a child. This can include grandparents, aunts and uncles, step-parents, and non-relatives under specific circumstances. A third party becomes a child’s custodian when:

  • Parents entrust their child to the third party;
  • The third party agrees to supervise the child, and
  • The third party is physically present with the child.

In some states, parents may be held criminally liable for their failure to exercise due care over the conduct of their children. An example of this would be how in California, it is a misdemeanor for a parent to fail to exercise reasonable care over their child. If convicted, the parent(s) could face up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Do I Need an Attorney for Issues Involving Parental Liability for Automobile Accidents Caused By a Child?

If you have been involved in an auto accident, you should contact a lawyer as soon as possible. This is especially true if the automobile accident was caused by a child, or otherwise involves parental liability. A car accident lawyer experienced in auto accidents can inform you of your rights or remedies that may be available to you. A local attorney will be aware of your state’s laws, and how those laws may affect the outcome of your case. They will gather evidence, hire expert witnesses, interview witnesses, negotiate with auto insurance agencies, and advocate for you in court.

If you are a parent facing liability for an automobile accident caused by your child, you should consult with a criminal defense attorney. An experienced and local personal injury attorney will ensure you and your child’s rights are protected throughout the process, and determine whether any legal defenses are available to you based on the specifics of your case.