Parents often worry about their children being bullied or harassed at school—verbally, physically, or through social media. But what if your child was the bully who harmed another student? You may be surprised to learn that the other student (or, more likely, the parents) could sue you in some circumstances—and you might end up paying for the victim’s medical expenses or other damages.
Parental Responsibility Laws
All states have some form of parental responsibility laws that make parents legally liable—which generally means financially responsible—for the actions of their children while they’re minors (and sometimes only when they’re older than a certain age). The specifics vary a lot from state to state, but parents are usually liable only when their children’s actions were intentional or malicious. Most states set an upper limit on the amount that parents may have to pay to compensate the victims for their actual damages.
Some examples of parental responsibility laws that could apply when a child hurts another student:
California: Under California Civil Code section 1714.1, any parent with “custody and control” of a minor may be liable for the child’s “willful misconduct” that causes another person’s injury or death.
Minnesota: In addition to a law making parents responsible for injuries caused by their children’s willful and malicious behavior, Minnesota Statutes section 611A.79 provides that parents may be liable for up to $5,000 in damages (including emotional distress) resulting from their children’s “bias offenses” (criminal conduct directed at others because of their race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, disability, or national origin), unless the parents made reasonable efforts to control their children’s behavior.
Louisiana: In one of the broadest parental responsibility laws in the country, Louisiana’s Civil Code Article 2318 makes parents responsible for any damage caused by their minor child, with no financial limit and regardless of the child’s intentions or the types of injuries. Because of the law’s general language, parents might even be liable in Louisiana (unlike in most states) for noneconomic damages like pain and suffering.
Parents’ Responsibilities Under Common Law
What if your child has harmed another student, but your state’s parental responsibility laws don’t apply—for instance, because the law in your state only covers property damage? Does that mean you’re off the hook for the other child’s injuries? Not necessarily. Under what’s known as “common law” (longstanding legal principles that aren’t written down in a specific statute but are recognized by courts), parents who know that their children are prone to dangerous behavior may have a legal obligation to do what they can to prevent the minors from causing harm that that was foreseeable. And if they don’t take reasonable preventive measures, the parents could be liable for negligence in a personal injury lawsuit.
Talking to a Lawyer
You could find yourself in serious legal and financial difficulties if your child is accused of hurting a classmate, depending on where you live and what your child has done. An experienced personal injury attorney should be able to explain the parental responsibility laws in your state, other bases for a lawsuit against you, and any defenses you might have.