When Can A Parent Be Held Liable for the Conduct of Their Child?

In the State of Georgia, parents are liable up to $10,000 plus court costs for wilful or malicious acts of their children which result in injury or property damage. O.C.G.A. Section 51-2-3. The same rule applies to non-parental guardians. In Georgia the age of majority is 18 and thus the child must be under 18 at the time of their bad conduct.

Examples of situations where this might apply include: bullying at school where a child is injured and fights between children that result in physical injury.

This rule provides for limited compensation for injury victims who are harmed by the intentional acts of a child. Without such a rule victims might go uncompensated since children generally do not have sufficient means to pay for the consequences of their bad acts.

The amount of compensation available to victims under O.C.G.A. Section 51-2-3, however, is capped at $10,000 plus court costs. That might be adequate to fully compensate those that suffer a modest injury, but what more can be done for those who suffer disabling or catastrophic injuries at the hands of a child?

One thing that can be done is to give due care to analyzing the conduct that caused the injury. O.C.G.A. Section 51-2-3 deals only with the “wilful” or “malicious” acts of minors. It does not cover situations where a parent negligently entrusts a child with a dangerous instrumentality and the child hurts someone. There may be a way around the $10,000 limitation in such scenarios.

Here is an example – Dad gives his son illegal fireworks and while little Johnny is busy blowing them up, another child gets hurt. Little Johnny may or may not be wilful in the matter, perhaps being a bit mischievous but not fully appreciating the grave dangers involved, yet Dad knew better.

Here is a second example of negligent entrustment – a child is allowed to play with a firearm unsupervised and a negligent discharge occurs killing someone. If a parent permitted the child to get their hands on that firearm (either by giving it to them or by failing to adequately secure it), that parent may have legal liability.

Another legal theory that can help an injury victim hold a parent liable for the conduct of their child is the “family purpose” doctrine. This doctrine applies to automobile wrecks and boating wrecks (yes, boat wrecks – See Stuart v. Stephens, 225 Ga. 185, 166 S.E. 2d 890.) When a child is driving a car (or a boat) that is owned by their parents and negligently causes a collision, it may be possible to hold the parents liable (normally this means a claim under the parent’s liability insurance). And note this – the doctrine applies to adult children also. The relevant question is not whether the child is a minor versus an adult but simply whether the child was using the car or boat for a purpose for which the parent provided it with the permission of the parent (either express or implied.)

Yet another legal theory that can help establish parental liability is “negligent supervision.” Parents have a duty to supervise their children. If a parent knows a child is behaving badly or has reason to expect their child to behave violently in a certain situation and fails to take reasonable steps to protect others, they may be liable.

A less common scenario, but one that arises occasionally, is when a parent employs their own child. If that child negligently injures another during the course and scope of their employment, the parent may have legal liability.

These are a few of the scenarios that can arise in the context of parental liability for children who cause harm to others. Your situation may differ. Feel free to call me to discuss.

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Attorney Pete Pearson practices law in Atlanta, Georgia and has a special interest in helping families with injured children. He is a father to six and lives with his wife and children near Atlanta, Georgia. He can be reached directly at Six-Seven-Eight 358-2564 or through his main site, www.petepearsonlaw.com.

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