Mountain Law: Are parents legally responsible for their childrens’ actions?
July 30, 2014
If a minor child damages property or injures someone, can the parents be held legally responsible? In Colorado, the answer is yes.
When a person is held legally responsible for something that someone else did, this is known as "vicarious" liability. In Colorado, a parent can be vicariously liable for property damage caused by a child under the age of 18 years who was living with the parent if the child's act is "malicious" or "willful." The parent's liability is capped at $3,500.
The terms malicious and willful under this law were examined in a case that, naturally, involved a motorcycle, a girl and pizza. Back in the mid-1970s, a minor named Randy borrowed a motorcycle. Because he did not have an operator's license, Randy's mother forbid him from operating the motorcycle. However, Randy and a "female passenger" took the motorcycle anyway to get some pizza. Along the way, they ran a stop sign and crashed into a van owned by a guy named Crum. Crum then sued Randy's mother for several hundred dollars worth of damage to the van.
The written opinion does not describe the mother's reaction when she was served with the lawsuit, nor whether Randy got the pizza or the girl. What it does say is that Randy's poor mother would not be held responsible under the circumstances. First, Randy's actions, even though he drove the cycle without a license and insurance, and in spite of his mother's wishes, were not "willful" because Randy did not intend to damage the van. The court distinguished between Randy willfully using the motorcycle and Randy willfully damaging the van. Second, Randy's actions were not "malicious" because he harbored no ill will for Crum and his van. Overall, the case shows that a child must act with a degree of intent before the parent will be responsible.
Apart from property damage, Colorado law says that a parent can be vicariously liable for bodily injury "knowingly" caused by a child under the age of 18 years who was living with the parent. The parent's liability is similarly capped at $3,500. The case law on this statute depressingly involves senseless gun violence by minors. Let's move on.
Both of the laws mentioned allow the injured person to recover costs and attorney fees from the parent in addition to damages. This is peculiar because there is no corollary law that would hold the parent liable for costs and attorney fees in most cases had the parent personally committed the offensive act. So, a parent can be hit up for costs and attorney fees if the child did the act, but not if the parent did the act himself or herself.
Colorado law also says that a parent can be vicariously responsible with respect to a minor who shoplifts (either by taking an item without paying for it or altering the price tag). In this case, the parent is responsible for the actual damages plus a penalty between $100 and $250 (with no $3,500 cap or allowance for costs and attorney fees as with the other laws).
Even if a minor's act falls outside the scope of the laws discussed above, a parent may still be responsible for knowingly allowing a child to engage in reckless activities. Taking Randy's case as an example, if his mother knew that he and his "female passenger" were going out every night on the motorcycle to get pizza and the mother did nothing to prevent it, she might be liable for any harm this caused.
Long after Randy's case, new laws came along that addressed parental responsibility for minor drivers and for paying a child's criminal restitution. I will save those issues for a future column. Parents of minor children probably have enough to worry about for now.
Noah Klug is owner of The Klug Law Firm LLC in Summit County, Colorado. He may be reached at 970-468-4953 or Noah@TheKlugLawFirm.com.
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