Nedlin: When’s a parent liable for their children’s bad behavior?
As a parent of two young daughters, I have learned that my greatest responsibility comes from my greatest fear: the fear that my children will not be functional, well-adjusted, law-abiding members of society prepared to face whatever challenges may face them. However, at the same time I am uneasily aware of the fact that they carry my DNA, which was responsible for some award-winning idiotic moments of my youth. Unfortunately, the human brain does not completely develop until the age of 25, so there is quite a long span of those “young and dumb” years with which parents must contend.
The mere fact that a minor has a parent will not make that parent liable for the child’s wrongdoing. If a child is engaging in conduct that is for the most part innocuous, and an unforeseeable wrong is committed that harms someone else, it is unlikely that the parent will be liable for the child’s misdoing. However, there are circumstances where a parent may be legally liable for a child’s negligent, malicious or criminal acts, and therefore financially and in certain cases, criminally responsible. In most of these scenarios, the parent will be responsible for the damages caused by their child.
There are three ways a parent can be independently negligent for their child’s wrongful act, by: (1) knowingly permitting the act; (2) failing to supervise the child, or (3) failing to warn others about a dangerous child. If a parent allows their child to drive the family car even though they have yet to possess a driver’s license, and the child becomes involved in an accident, it is likely that parent will be liable for knowingly permitting their unlicensed child to operate a motor vehicle.
What about graduation parties? If parents allow their teenage child to have a graduation party and instead of properly supervising they decide go on a weekend trip or bury their heads in the sand and lock themselves in the bedroom to avoid all the noise and havoc, potential problems may arise. Now, if the homeowner’s child is playing bartender with the unlocked liquor cabinet and giving free rein of the house to hormonally fueled teenagers, this is a recipe for potential disaster. If a child overdoses or is put in a coma by alcohol poisoning, or if one of the kids gets in a car and kills themselves or others, this may be linked to a clear lack of supervision on the part of the parents and their duty to supervise their child, therefore subjecting them to possible liability.
Lastly, what if a parent has a child who they know has a propensity for violence? If that parent allows their child to baby-sit and does not disclose these violent propensities to the other parent, this may be a serious issue. What we have is a dangerous child caring for and being responsible for another child, when the parents know of the possible risks and dangers. If something was to happen to the child being baby-sat, or their family pet is harmed, it is highly likely the parents would be subject to liability for their failure to disclose this known information about their child.
When we enter the realm of criminal acts that are committed by children, it is not just the child that faces severe consequences. The parents may also become part of a sentencing of the child as well.
For instance, a court has the authority to order the parents to perform volunteer community service that is designed to contribute to the rehabilitation of the juvenile or to the ability of the parent to provide proper parental care and supervision of the child. A parent may also be ordered, either alone or with their child, to attend parental responsibility training. Parents may also have to perform services to the victim of the crime, once again designed to contribute to the rehabilitation of the child.
As for monetary liability, a parent or legal guardian may be liable up to $25,000 for any one delinquent act of their child. That being said, a restitution hearing must be held, and if the court finds that after the hearing that the juvenile’s parents made diligent, good-faith efforts to prevent or discourage their child from engaging in the criminal activity, the court will absolve the parent of liability for restitution. It is clear that the court will be inquiring as to the history of the child/parent relationship and any known proclivities on the part of their child that the parents were aware or should have been aware.
Parents’ greatest fears and concerns also can become a source of their greatest vigilance. As I talk with my children about consequences and effects of their actions, I am usually left with the sense that they may be hearing but not listening; and after a couple minutes my voice becomes a virtual white noise. However, I strongly believe in the concept of children learning by osmosis. All we can hope, as parents, is that the spontaneous and constant movement of our words of wisdom will partially permeate our children’s not fully formed membrane leaving a residue in their subconscious that, at the right time, will become part of their better judgment and reasoning.
Richard Nedlin is a former prosecutor in Aspen and now practices criminal defense. He can be contacted at http://www.nedlin law.com and richard@nedlin law.com.