Minor Child, Major Liability?

When I joined the world of parenthood, the greatest change in my life became focusing on caring for someone else. These little bundles of joy are entirely dependent on me. With each day that passes, I learn more about this incredible and daunting responsibility. A few years into fatherhood with kids who tend to swing and throw hard objects, break things, and draw in permanent marker on everything, I have become acquainted with a new dimension of this responsibility. Not necessarily of protecting my children from the dangers of the world – rather, to protect the world from the occasionally destructive tendencies of my children. Does the great parental responsibility come fettered with liability1?

One should begin this discussion by understanding the root claim supporting potential parental liability – negligence. Basic negligence requires: (1) a legal duty; (2) a breach of that duty; and (3) injury proximately caused by the breach. However, where in a typical claim for negligence a plaintiff seeks redress directly from the offender, here the claim is directed at a third party – the parent of the destructive child. Pursuing such a claim requires showing that a special relationship exists between the third party and the offender. Generally, two things must exist: (1) the defendant knows or should know of the third person’s propensities; and (2) the defendant has the ability and opportunity to control the third person at the time of the third person’s actions.

It is well-established in North Carolina and other jurisdictions that parents are (thankfully) not liable for the civil liabilities of their minor children solely by reason of their parent-child relationship. In fact, up until the early 1980s certain North Carolina cases arguably required specific involvement and/or approval by the parent of the child’s nefarious conduct in order to be held liable. Essentially, the child was viewed as a servant or agent of the parent and active parental participation at some level was necessary. Then, in 1982 the North Carolina Supreme Court chipped away at that parental protection and established a lower standard of care.

That year, in a case titled Moore v. Crumpton2, the Court encountered a tragic situation involving the June 1978 rape of a woman by a seventeen year old minor child. The plaintiff victim brought a personal injury action against the minor and his parents resulting from the crime. The evidence showed that the minor child suffered from several infirmities during his youth, but otherwise experienced a “comfortable and secure” home life. In his teenage years, the minor child began using various controlled substances and committed a few petty criminal offenses. As a result, his parents sent him to a private high school where he performed pretty well. They also consulted doctors, counselors and mental health professionals about their son’s behavior. None of the professionals who treated the minor child found evidence to suggest he was disposed to violent or dangerous behavior, even during early 1978. However, the minor child discontinued his counseling sessions. On the night at issue, his parents were out of town but made arrangements for him to stay with his grandparents. Prior to leaving for his grandparents’ home, but after his parents left town, the minor child obtained a large amount of whiskey from a friend, drank it, took some type of controlled substance, broke into the plaintiff’s home, and raped her.

The plaintiff claimed the parents should have exercised “reasonable care to control and supervise [their son] so as to prevent him from intentionally injuring others.” She asserted that the parents had notice of their son’s circumstances and historical conduct that required their efforts to ensure he did not injure others. The plaintiff further argued that this requirement served as the “legal duty” under the negligence standard. Thus, by not exercising reasonable care, the parents breached their legal duty owed to the plaintiff which proximately caused her injury.

The Court agreed to an extent. It held that a parent may be liable for not exercising reasonable control over a child if the parent (1) had the ability and opportunity to control his child and (2) knew or should have known of the necessity for exercising such control. However, applying that standard to the facts, the Court determined that the parents neither knew nor should have known of the necessity for controlling him. Although they were aware of his drug problems and other issues, the parents “had no recent information to indicate that an assault might occur or that [their son] might become involved in a forcible rape.” The Court further explained that neither parent had the ability to control him at the time of the rape and had made efforts to provide supervision in their absence. The plaintiff won her argument for the proper legal standard by which the defendant parents should be held. But, the Court disagreed with her belief that they failed to meet that standard, i.e., breached a legal duty owed to her.

Despite the variety of cases involving this issue that have matriculated through the legal system since the Moore decision, the North Carolina appellate courts have remained with the parental standard of care – albeit with some clarifications. For example, in one case a minor plaintiff sought personal injury damages from the father of an eight year old boy who struck the plaintiff in the eye with a golf club. The Court found no evidence to suggest that the defendant father should, by the exercise of due care, have reasonably foreseen that the child was likely to use a golf putter that way. The Court made clear that a parent is not an insurer of the safety of the child’s playmates. In a separate case, parents of a child accused of assault were sued for failing to supervise their child. The defendant parents claimed they should not be held liable for the crimes of their child. However, the evidence actually showed that the mother assisted the minor child in assaulting the plaintiff victim while the father stood by and refused to intervene. The court declined to protect the defendant mother who acted in concert with the minor child and the defendant father who ignored the plaintiff’s pleas for help.

The law recognizes that a parent is the first line of defense for the rest of the world when it comes to the actions of their children. Presumably parents have the greatest perspective and understanding about their children and their respective tendencies in interacting with others. Consequently, they are charged with exercising reasonable control over their children when they know (or should know) that there may be a problem. This standard exists without regard to whether the child’s act is intentional or merely negligence. However, for reasons described above, this responsibility is not limitless. There is a recognition that parents can only do so much. When one of my children give me a mischievous grin, I take some solace in that.

1 This article solely considers a parent’s potential liability for the misconduct of a child.  Consideration of the principal liability of the child is a topic for another day.

2 306 N.C. 618, 295 S.E.2d 436 (1982). Menosan1pc