Parental Liability for the Acts of a Minor Child

Is a parent responsible for the tortious acts of their minor child? Generally, a parent does not have any liability for a tort committed by their child. However, there a few limited exceptions.

Parental Liability for a Minor’s Driving in California

Since, in California, the parent or legal guardian must sign a driver’s license application for any minor who is under 18, section 17707 essentially spells out civil liability for that parent or guardian if the minor causes a car accident which provides: “Any civil liability of a minor arising out of his driving a motor vehicle…is hereby imposed upon the person who signed and verified the application of the minor for a license.”

Agent and Principal

A parent is liable for the acts committed by their child when that child is acting within the course and scope of a relationship built on an agency theory. The best example of something like this is when a parent asks their child to go to the store to pick something up for them. The child at that instance is under the control and direction of their parent. As such the parent is responsible for the child as an employer is for an employee.

Knowledge of Prior Misconduct

A parent may sometimes be considered liable for an injury caused by their own child where the parent’s own negligence made it possible for the child to cause the injury.

In other words, the evidence must show that the parents had a duty as a reasonable person to restrain the child. This is a fact intensive inquiry that is generally not easily answered. The evidence must demonstrate that the parent knew or should have known that their child could have committed the type of act which injured the individual. If for example a minor has a history of painting graffiti a future act of tagging using the parents paint maybe foreseeable.

Statutory Liability

Statutory liability exists in certain situations where the child engages in “willful misconduct.” Cal. Civil Code § 1741.1. This statute does not impute liability for ordinary negligence but where the act rises above negligence. The damages that can be awarded under this statute are also capped at $ 25,000.00.

The statute imposes liability on parents where bodily injury happens as the result of the child’s willful misconduct that results in physical harm.

Interesting Lawsuit of the Month: Woman Charged in Alleged FAKE McDonald’s Coffee Burn Case

Does this sound familiar?- a woman claims that an unsecured lid caused steaming hot McDonald’s coffee to spill on her right hand, severely burning it. As “evidence”, Selena Edwards, 38, of Victorville provided pictures of second-degree burns.

BUT the only burns Edwards may suffer from are the prosecutorial ones she now faces for allegedly faking her injuries.

State insurance officials say the woman’s claims were a bid to extract $10,000 from McDonald’s Corp. The photos and medical documents Edwards provided to bolster her case came from the Internet, they said.

“We discovered that some of the photos were from a hospital website,” state Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said. “We contacted her medical provider and discovered she hadn’t received any medical treatment.”

The San Bernardino County district attorney charged Edwards with 21 felony counts of insurance fraud and workers’ compensation fraud.

Authorities said Edwards looked to the golden arches in Fontana, to allegedly commit the crime. Officials said the Victorville woman claimed coffee had spilled on her right hand when she was handed a cup with an unsecured lid at the McDonald’s drive-through.

“By copying legitimate burn photos from the Internet, Edwards attempted to make a profit from another person’s pain and suffering and for this she will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” he said.

The prosecution of Edwards comes 20 years after a jury awarded $2.9 million to a 79-year-old woman who was badly burned after hot coffee spilled into her lap at a McDonald’s in Albuquerque. The 1994 verdict attracted international attention, was mocked by radio and television talk-show hosts and was even used as a plot point in the TV comedy “Seinfeld.”

Despite the controversy, the woman in that case, Stella Liebeck, actually did suffer severe third-degree burns and required skin graft surgery.

Jones said that every year tens of thousands of cases that potentially involve fraud are referred to his agency.

Quote of the Month

“No matter what, expect the unexpected. And whenever possible BE the unexpected.” – Lynda Barry, author