Are Parents Liable When Their Children Injure Others?

October 17, 2018

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Our personal injury attorneys have handled cases in which our clients have been injured by the negligence of a minor, typically one who was not being adequately supervised.

Often, the minor’s parents feel responsible.  They frequently believe they have purchased insurance to cover such a situation.

Unfortunately, the decision regarding whether or not insurance money should be paid typically does not rest with the person who has purchased the insurance policy (the “insured”).  This is true even though the insured has been dutifully paying premiums to the insurance company for years.

Unfortunately, the decision to pay or settle a claim rests with the insurance company.  And the insurance company does not act out of moral obligation.  They are making a cold, hard business decision.

In other words, you have to prove to the insurance company that their insured owes money.  They have to fear that if they do not pay, they will be sued for failing to act reasonably in settling a claim.  (In Texas liability insurance cases, this is called the “Stowers Doctrine.”).

Our lawyers have persuaded insurance companies to accept responsibility in numerous cases.

Texas Legal Principles:  Parental Responsibility

Depending on the facts and jurisdiction, a parent may be held liable for personal injuries or “torts” caused by their children, including under the doctrines of respondeat superior, joint enterprise, and agency.  Sanders v. Herold, 217 S.W.3d 11 (Tex. App. Houston 1st Dist. 2006, no pet.); Rodriguez v. Spencer, 902 S.W.2d 37, 42 (Tex.App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 1995, no writ).

In one case, a minor girl caused an accident while taking her mother to the supermarket to purchase shoes for her brother.  The girl was, therefore, operating the motor vehicle with the consent of her mother, on a mission which involved the welfare of a minor member of the family. The San Antonio Court of Appeals found that since the minor was operating the car at the instance of her mother for her mother’s benefit, the relationship of principal and agent existed between mother and daughter, so that the mother was liable for the negligence of her agent.  de Anda v. Blake, 562 S.W.2d 497 (Tex. Civ. App. San Antonio 1978).

Knowledge Of Dangerous Tendencies

Additionally, a parent may be held directly liable for his minor’s torts if he permits the minor to act in a manner likely to cause injury to another. Moody v. Clark, 266 S.W.2d 907, 912 (Tex.Civ.App.-Texarkana 1954, writ ref’d n.r.e.). Such negligence may be shown when the parent carelessly fails to restrain a child known to have dangerous tendencies.  A child is “known to have dangerous tendencies” if the parent can anticipate the danger his child may pose to third parties.

“Actual knowledge is not required if the parent should, under the circumstances, reasonably anticipate the consequences of his or her actions.”  A parent’s duty to protect third parties from the acts of the parent’s minor child depends on whether the injury to the third party is foreseeable, as evidenced by the parent’s knowledge of, consent to, sanction of, or participation in the child’s activities.

In one case, a mother was held liable when her son molested the two young daughters of her ex-husband’s new wife.  The stepson had been accused of molesting a cousin the year before, and Child Protective Services had notified the mother that there “was a reason to believe that [her son] was responsible for the sexual and physical abuse of [the cousin].”  The mother claimed she could not be held responsible, because her son had misled her into believing that CPS had concluded the allegations against her son were groundless. The Houston Court of Appeals held the mother had a duty because she “could have reasonably anticipated the danger of allowing [her son] to go to the [girls’]home without giving [adequate] warning of the possibility of danger to [her son’s] half-sisters.” Isbell v. Ryan, 983 S.W.2d 335, 337 (Tex.App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 1998, no pet.)

Entrustment Of Dangerous Instrumentality

A parent may also be held liable for a child’s conduct if the parent’s conduct renders the parent a principal tortfeasor.  Such negligence exists where the parent entrusts a dangerous instrumentality.  A parent may be liable where he entrusts his child with an instrumentality which because of the youth or inexperience of the child may become a source of danger to others. Liability may even be predicated under some circumstances when the act of the parent is merely leaving the dangerous instrumentality accessible to the child.

And “the mother, as well as the father, may be liable for permitting a child to have and use firearms, when, in the father’s absence, she fails to exercise the authority devolving upon her. It is also the affirmative duty of a parent to refrain from furnishing to his child an instrument which, because of its nature, use and purposes, is so dangerous as to constitute in the hands of a child, an unreasonable risk to others, and it is also the duty of the parent to take positive action to prevent the child from obtaining and using them.”  Moody v. Clark, 266 S.W.2d 907 (Tex. Civ. App. Texarkana 1954, writ ref’d n.r.e.).

In one case, a mother was held liable when she left her two young boys in the car with the engine running, and without effectively setting the parking brake.  The boys hit the accelerator, and the car lurched forward onto a sidewalk, causing personal injury.  Moody, 266 S.W.2d at 910.

In one of our recent cases, Morrow & Sheppard obtained substantial recovery of more than $1.3 million from an insurance company when parents entrusted their child with a potato gun, resulting in severe injuries to our client.

Statutory Duties

Depending on the circumstances, specific Texas statutes may impose parental liability for property damage (but typically not personal injury).

The Texas Family Code provides that a “parent or another person who has the duty of control and reasonable discipline of a child is liable for any property damage proximately caused by (1) the negligent conduct of the child if the conduct is reasonably attributable to the negligent failure of the parent or another person to exercise that duty; or (2) the willful and malicious conduct of a child who is at least 10 years of age but under 18 years of age.”  Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 41.001.

Damages awardable under the statute may not exceed $25,000 per occurrence, plus court costs and reasonable attorney’s fees.  Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 41.002.

Other Potential Liability

Sometimes a person or entity besides the parents may bear liability for the actions of a minor, or injuries to a minor.

This may include daycares, childcare providers, private schools, etc.  In one case, one of our clients obtained a substantial recovery from a daycare that slammed a young boy’s arm in a door, causing severe injuries.

Proper application of the laws in this area often requires careful analysis by an experienced attorney.

If You Have Questions, Get A Free Case Evaluation

The above statements provide a general framework and are not specific legal advice.  Depending on the facts, other bases for liability may exist.  The law in this area is tricky.  But if you are entitled to recovery, you should pursue your legal rights.

If you or someone you care about has been injured or killed, and a minor was involved, you may find it especially beneficial to get a free, confidential case evaluation from one of our personal injury lawyers.


Get a Free Case Review by Calling Morrow & Sheppard Now.

We’re available 24/7.

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