Two things you quickly learn as a parent are (1) you can’t have both nice things and kids, and (2) someone is always getting hurt. Accidently or on purpose kids destroy property and injure each other. My four girls are good kids, but we’ve had our fair share of property damage (“how do you get Sharpie out of…” is one of my top Google searches) and injuries (a game of chase leads to jammed fingers in slammed doors). We know we are responsible for the destruction and mayhem our kids cause in our own house, but when are we responsible for the damages they cause outside of our house?
Believe it or not but courts can hold parents legally responsible for the actions and behavior of their children.
Almost every state has a parental responsibility law. The Texas law holds parents responsible only for property damages (and not personal injuries) in certain circumstances. If your child is between the ages of 10 and 18, you are responsible for property damage if (1) your child acted willfully and maliciously, and (2) you do not take reasonable steps to control or to discipline your child. Liability is capped at $25,000 plus attorney fees. Parents are not responsible for property damage resulting from accidents.
However, parental responsibility laws are not the be-all-end-all of parental responsibility for damages and injuries caused by children. Parents may be liable under common law for both property damages and personal injuries if they knew of their child’s recklessness and carelessness, but did not take any action to prevent the damage or injury. The grounds for such liability is parental negligence. Here is an example. Your nine year old hits a golf ball from your yard and the ball breaks your neighbor’s window. If you knew your child liked to hit golf balls in your yard and you did nothing to reasonably prevent him from doing this (like warning him not to hit golf balls in the yard), your neighbor may have grounds for a lawsuit against you.
So what should you do if your child accidently (or on purpose) damages someone else’s property or injures another child? For example, your child bumps into (or pushes) your neighbor’s child on playground, your neighbor’s child falls and breaks a couple of teeth, and now your neighbor is demanding you pay the dental bill and threatening to sue you. You may decide to pay the bill to keep the peace between you are your neighbor. Or you may decide that accidents happen (especially at the playground) and to call his bluff. Whatever you do decide, you should consult with an attorney. You don’t want to pay the bill only to have your neighbor come back and demand more money, or to pass up on an opportunity to settle the matter for a much lesser amount (the bill versus the bill plus attorney fees).
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