Children – even the best of them – can get themselves into trouble sometimes. Boys might throw rocks and it could result in someone getting injured or a neighbor's window getting broken. Shoplifting isn't unheard of. And copycat vandalism can take place at school.

Children will screw up, and they'll likely get in trouble for it. But what about their parents?

In this article, I'll explain when parents can be held liable for their children's actions (whether civil or criminal). I'll also discuss related insurance issues.

One quick caveat before we proceed: liability laws vary widely from state to state. Although I'll provide some specific examples, the discussion will be generalized.

Parental Liability Under Civil Law

With respect to civil liability, parents or guardians can be held liable for the wrongful or negligent acts of their children if they are under the age of 18. This type of liability is called vicarious liability, meaning the person held liable is not directly responsible for the injury.

Wrongful or negligent acts are often called torts, and refer to injury or loss caused by a civil wrong (civil essentially meaning not criminal). An example of this would be if your 11-year-old child rode his bicycle down a steep hill at an unsafe speed and hit another child who was crossing the street near the bottom of the hill. The family of the injured child could sue you for your child's negligence.

Examples of Civil Liability

A few examples of the many types of wrongful actions for which parents can be held liable include:

  • In Colorado, parents can be held liable for their child’s shoplifting
  • In California and numerous other states, parents can be held liable for their child's negligent driving
  • In Georgia, Illinois, and other states, parents can be held liable for property damage and medical expenses caused by their child's willful or malicious acts
  • In Kentucky, parents can be held liable for vandalism committed by their child

In some of the instances, criminal charges could also be brought. For example, a shop that suffers a loss from your child shoplifting could pursue civil actions, but since shoplifting is a crime, the state prosecutor could also file criminal charges.

Liability Limits

Most states have limits on vicarious liability.

Two examples:

  • In New York, there is a $5,000 limit with respect to parental liability for children between the ages of 10 and 18 for various wrongful acts, including willful, malicious, or unlawful destruction of property. (Note again that the child could possibly be charged criminally for these acts, but can also be sued civilly by the property owner who suffered loss.)
  • In California, there is a $25,000 limit with respect to parental liability for vandalism by children under the age of 18 (again, there could be criminal charges as well).

In general, in virtually all states parents can be held liable for at least some (and in numerous states, many) types of wrongful or negligent acts committed by their children. Monetary limits often, but not always, apply (find out Why You Need a Lot of Liability Coverage - Even if You're Law-Abiding).

Parental Liability Under Criminal Law

A big area here concerns firearm access laws. Some states impose criminal liability on a parent if they store a weapon in a way that allows a child to gain access to it.

A new but growing field is unlawful activity involving the internet or computers. An example is found in Thrifty-Tel, Inc. v. Bezenek (1996) 46 Cal.App.4th 1559, a Court of Appeal opinion in California. In this case, the parents of two teenage boys were found liable for their sons hacking into Thrifty-Tel’s system and making long-distance phones calls without paying for them.

Other states require parents to pay for the costs incurred by the state for court proceedings and processing in the juvenile justice system.

In general, parents are not liable for criminal acts of children, but there are exceptions. Further, in many cases criminal activity can give rise to civil liability. In Thrifty-Tel, for instance, the teenagers committed a crime, the parents were sued civilly for damages. In the case of a child committing a crime with a gun that a parent had not properly secured, both the child and the parent could be charged criminally, and the parent could also be be sued civilly by any person who suffered loss, physical or monetary, as a result of the crime.

Will Insurance Protect Parents?

Insurance cannot cover criminal acts. However, most homeowner’s and renter’s policies provide coverage for negligent acts by members of the household, regardless of where the acts occur (they don't have to occur on the insured property).

For negligent acts involving driving, an auto insurance policy might cover a negligent act even if the child was unlicensed. In Safeco Insurance Co. v. Davis (1986) 721 P. 2d 550 (Washington Court of Appeals), for example, an 18-year-old young man borrowed his father's car and allowed an unlicensed 14-year-old girl to drive it. While driving the car, the girl collided with another vehicle. The court ruled that the insurer of the young man’s parents had to provide coverage in the suit that followed (for related reading, see The First Steps You Need to Take After Wrecking Your Car).

As for homeowner’s and renter’s policies, they generally have broad coverage for negligent acts. Importantly, courts have frequently held that a parent’s vicarious liability for a child’s criminal act is covered. Here's one example: in Property Cas. Co. of MCA v. Conway (1997) 687 A. 2d 729 (New Jersey Supreme Court), the court ruled that the parent of a child who had intentionally vandalized a school was covered under a homeowner’s policy for his (the parent’s) vicarious liability. So, not only did the act not take place on the homeowner’s insured property, but it was also a criminal act. The parent, however, had not committed a crime and was only vicariously liable. The reasoning of this case has been followed by courts in many states.

The Bottom Line

Liability is a complex subject. If your child commits a criminal act, you will certainly want to consult a lawyer, and you might want to if he or she commits a wrongful or negligent act.

If there is any possibility that you will be held liable for monetary damages, you should alert your homeowner’s, renter’s, or auto insurance company as soon as possible so it can get involved in any investigation.

If your insurer declines coverage or sends you a "reservation of rights" letter (saying that they are reserving their right to later decline coverage), talk to a lawyer.