Parental Liability: Can My Child Be Sued?

Most people do not believe the law should treat young children the same as an adult when it comes to taking legal responsibility for their actions. However, there are cases in which a plaintiff could sue a child under the age of 18. In these cases, it is the child’s parents who will foot the legal bills and pay a settlement or judgment award.

Federal and Missouri state laws do protect children from liability in many scenarios, but there are situations in which a child could become a defendant. As a parent, it’s your responsibility to learn what could happen if someone does try to sue your child. Child and parental liability for someone else’s injuries or property damage is a complex area of law.

Child Liability

If your child is under the age of four, most courts in America will conclude that your child is too young for someone to legally hold him or her accountable for actions and behaviors. There are no laws against bringing a lawsuit against someone this young, per se, but the odds are high that the courts will dismiss the case arguing that the child is too young to owe duties of care to others and, therefore, cannot negligently breach these duties (the elements necessary in a personal injury claim).

If your child is between the ages of four and 14, the law is different. The general assumption that children are not capable of breaching a legal duty still exists; however, a plaintiff could overturn this assumption if he or she has evidence that proves otherwise. In other circumstances, a court might overturn this assumption if the child was participating in adult activities and caused an injury. If a young child intentionally causes harm to someone and a jury decides that he or she is old enough to intentionally commit the harm, the child could face civil and/or criminal trial.

Missouri’s child liability laws have a provision in which the courts might allow the minor to work off the debt he or she owes to a plaintiff in a won settlement or judgment. Section 537.045 of the law states that the courts can accept work in lieu of monetary payment. The judge might order the minor or his/her parents or guardian to work for the owner of the damaged property in lieu of payment. However, the minor, the parent, and the owner of the property must all agree to the arrangement.

Parental Liability

In many states, the courts will hold parents liable for property damage their children cause, if the courts deem the damage “willful.” The doctrine of “civil parental liability” in Missouri states that parents could be responsible if a child purposely defaces, damages, or marks someone else’s property, and if the victim files a claim against the child. Under these circumstances, the parent or parents must pay compensation to those who suffered harms from the child’s actions. Missouri laws limit parental liability to a cap of $2,000. If a balance remains past this cap, the plaintiff has the right to pursue a separate claim against the minor.

Even if Missouri’s laws do not hold parents liable, common laws might. Common laws impose parental liability if a parent knew or reasonably should have known the child had a propensity to act in a way that would cause the injuries or property damage. In these cases, the parent(s) have the duty to reasonably prevent foreseeable harms. Failure to do so could result in parental liability.

Note on the Age of Majority

Once a child reaches the state’s “age of majority” (18 in Missouri and most other states), parental liability laws will no longer apply. Parental liability will only apply if the child in question is a minor under the age of majority. Older children facing civil lawsuits will face sole liability (without parental liability) and have to pay for the settlement or judgment on their own. Children over the age of 18 in Missouri also will not qualify for Missouri’s work-in-lieu provision. Always retain an attorney for assistance if someone is trying to sue your child.