When a minor child is responsible for someone else’s property damage or personal injury, the juvenile justice system takes a different approach to liability than in cases involving adults. Often, the courts assign liability to the child’s parents. Many parents don’t realize that the courts can hold them legally responsible for the actions and behavior of their minor child. Almost every state has enacted a version of parental responsibility laws. Texas is no exception.
Texas Family Code Chapter 41
The details of Texas’ parental responsibility laws are in Texas Family Code section 41.001. Chapter 41 describes parental liability for the conduct of a child, but only deals with property damage, not personal injury. Texas’ parental responsibility laws do not cover personal injury liability. The statute assigns liability to any parent or “other person who has the duty of control and reasonable discipline” of a minor – meaning that legal guardians may be held responsible for the actions of a minor child. The courts will hold a parent liable for property damage a child causes in two situations:
- The courts can reasonably attribute a child’s negligent conduct to a negligent failure on the part of a parent or guardian.
- The child is between the ages of 10 and 18 and committed the act willfully and maliciously.
The Family Code places a limit on damages available for recovery according to the willful and malicious conduct of a child. The cap is to actual damages, not to exceed $25,000, plus attorney’s fees and court costs. The $25,000 or actual damage cap is per occurrence, meaning that two separate acts of property damage may have caps of $25,000 each. For example, if a minor child willfully and maliciously causes property damage in two different rooms of a hotel, the damage limits will apply to each room separately.
Texas Family Code does not cover property damage that results from accidental actions or behaviors. The courts will not assign fault for a child’s accident to his or her parents. For a defendant to bring a claim against a minor child for property damage, he or she needs to prove that the child’s negligence or willful and malicious intent caused the damage, not simply an accident.
Parental Liability Beyond the Texas Statute
Texas Family Code is not the be-all end-all of parental responsibility for a minor child’s actions in Texas. The statutes in Chapter 41 do not encompass all possible child actions and behaviors the courts might assign to parents. Civil liability may extend to parents under the principles of common law in certain situations. It is possible for an injured party to bring a personal injury claim against parents for damages a child caused on the grounds of parental negligence.
For example, if a parent knew or should have known of a child’s propensity to throw baseballs through people’s windows and did nothing to reasonably prevent this from happening, the homeowners with the smashed window may be able to sue the parents. The grounds for this lawsuit would be failure to prevent a foreseeable harm. These cases typically arise in the event of serious personal injuries caused by a child with known violent propensities.
A party may be able to sue a minor’s parents for negligence or breach of duty if he or she can prove that the parents knew of a child’s propensity for the harmful behavior before it occurred and failed to do anything to prevent an injury or property damage. In this case, the parents’ “duty of care” to the defendant would be to prevent the child from causing foreseeable harm, such as joyriding and crashing a neighbor’s car. The parents may have breached this duty by failing to reasonably prevent the teen from doing so, making them liable for damages.