Do Parents Have to Pay for Damages Caused by Their Kids?

Do Parents Have to Pay for Damages Caused by Their Kids?
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Last updated: January 2011

The following questions were submitted to John Roska, an attorney/writer whose weekly newspaper column, "Q&A: The Law," runs in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Illinois Edition) and the Champaign News Gazette. This article was published on January 26, 2011.


You said in a column that parents could be liable for damages caused by their kids. When and how is that possible? Up until what age?


A recent column said that—generally speaking—parents have no legal responsibility for their adult children. However, that column also mentioned the possibility that parents could be liable for damages caused by a child’s “willful or malicious acts.”

The Illinois Parental Responsibility Law makes that possible. Parents and guardians can also be civilly liable for damages resulting from some hate crimes committed by unemancipated minors, and to merchants for retail theft losses, but the Parental Responsibility Law is probably the main way kids could make their parents liable.

It’s important to note that minors and parents can be liable for their own negligence. Proving minors negligent—and then getting them to pay—can be difficult. But parents who let their kid play with guns, for example, can be liable for their own negligence if that gunplay causes injury.

The Illinois Supreme Court has stated the general rule, that “a parent is not liable for the tort of his minor child merely from the relationship.” The Parental Responsibility Law changes that by saying: “The parent or legal guardian of an unemancipated minor who resides with such parent or legal guardian is liable for actual damages for the wilful or malicious acts of such minor which cause injury to a person or property.”

So, the people who could be liable under this law are parents and legal guardians. The people they could be liable for are unemancipated minors.

Most minors are “unemancipated,” since it’s hard to become legally emancipated. And it’s logical that an unemancipated minor must reside with a parent or guardian in order to create liability under the law. But exactly what “resides” means can get tricky—just ask Rahm Emanuel, whose place on the ballot for Chicago mayor hinges on just how that word gets interpreted.

A “minor” under the Parental Responsibility Law is different from a “minor” for most other purposes. For the Parental Responsibility Law, a minor is at least 12 years old, but not yet 19. That very different from the otherwise all-purpose Probate Act, which says a minor “is a person who has not attained the age of 18 years.”

Parents and guardians, then, could be liable for an 18 year old child, who the law otherwise treats as an adult.

But, only a child’s “willful or malicious” acts can make a parent or guardian liable. That’s clearly more than simple negligence, like a run-of-the-mill car accident. Vandalism, though, and beating someone up, are probably “willful or malicious.”

If a victim can prove that an unemancipated minor’s acts were willful or malicious, the parent or guardian’s maximum liability for personal or property damages could be $20,000. If they prove “a pattern and practice of willful or malicious acts,” they can push that maximum to $30,000.

(The $1,000 limit in the original 1969 law was increased to $2,500 in 1998, and then to $20,000 in 2005.)

The Parental Responsibility Law is an example of both vicarious and strict liability. It’s vicarious because it imposes liability on someone for what another person did. It’s strict because there’s no way around liability if the basic elements can be proven. You’re liable if somebody can prove (1) your unemancipated 12 to 18 year old; (2) willfully or maliciously; (3) caused damage.

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