Parental Responsibility for Damages Caused by Children in California

In California, parents can be held liable for damages caused by their children under age 18 under three general circumstances:

  1. When the child engages in willful misconduct that results in injury, regardless of whether the parent knew the child was dangerous ;[1]
  2. When the parent fails to prevent an injury despite observing a child's dangerous behavior or knowing the child has dangerous tendencies; or
  3. When a child injures someone with a firearm the parent or guardian let the child use.[2]

(Parents who allow their child to engage in dangerous behavior may also face criminal prosecution under California's child abuse laws or California's child endangerment laws for potential or actual harm to their own children).

To help you better understand when California law makes a parent responsible for a child's actions, our Los Angeles personal injury lawyers discuss the following, below:

young boy driving a car

1. California's vicarious parental responsibility law – CA Civil Code 1714.1

California Civil Code 1714.1 makes parents and guardians vicariously liable for up to $25,000 for their child's willful misconduct. To be liable under this section, however, the child's conduct must result in:

  • Injury or death to another person, or 
  • Injury to another person's property.[3]

1.1. California's legal definition of “willful” misconduct

As a general rule, California law makes people responsible for the natural and probable consequences of their acts, i.e., for their negligence, rrecklessness or intentional wrongful acts.[4]

Californians are only liable for other people's actions when a statute sets forth an additional and constitutional basis for indirect (vicarious) liability.

Civil Code 1714.1 is one such statute. It makes parents indirectly liable under certain circumstances for the willful acts of their children. The question of whether an act is "willful" is not whether the child intends a particular result, but whether the child has the mental capacity to intend the act that led to the result.

Example: 5-year old Jenny accidentally disengages her mother's parking brake. The car rolls down the street and hits another car, causing the driver medical bills of $10,000. But since tJenny's conduct was not willful, her parents are not liable under California Civil Code 1714.1.
The result may have been different if Jenny was a little older and had purposely disengaged the brake because she was angry at her mother and wanted to get her attention. In such a case the parents could be liable – even if Jenny hadn't meant to hurt anyone. The question for a jury would be whether Jenny disengaged the brake on purpose with the understanding that doing so could injure someone. 

1.2. The legal meaning of joint and several liability

Under Civil Code 1714.1 the parent or guardian having custody and control of the child becomes jointly and severally liable with the child for such damages.

This means the injured party can sue the child, or the parent(s), or both. It is an issue of fairness since many children do not have any money of their own to pay for harm they do to another person.

1.3. Caps on the amount and type of parental damages in California

In the case of injury or death, vicarious parental liability in California is limited to medical, dental and hospital expenses not to exceed $25,000.[5] There is no recovery for pain and suffering damages or punitive damages.

In the case of defacement of property with paint or a similar substance, vicarious parental liability is also limited to $25,000, including court costs and attorney's fees.

In both cases, the $25,000 limit is subject to adjustment for cost-of-living increases every two years.[6]

Additionally, the parent's insurance company (if applicable) shall be liable to make payment of no more than $10,000 for a loss covered under California's vicarious parental liability law.[7]

2. Direct liability for parental negligence

California law makes parents / guardians directly liable for injuries called by their minor children when such injuries result from the parent's own negligence.

To prove direct liability for parental negligence a plaintiff must prove that:

  1. The parent either observed the behavior that caused the injury or was aware that the child had habits or tendencies that created an unreasonable risk of harm to others;
  2. The parent had the opportunity and ability to control the child's conduct;
  3. The parent failed to use reasonable care to prevent the conduct or harm; and
  4. As a result of such failure, the plaintiff was harmed.[8]
child with automatic weapon in classroom

3. Parental liability for minor's use of a firearm – CA Civil Code 1714.3

California Civil Code 1714.3 makes parents vicariously liable for injuries caused by the discharge of a firearm by their minor under the age of 18.

Both the minor and any parent or guardian having custody and control of the minor will be jointly and severally liable with such minor provided the parent or guardian either permitted the minor to have the firearm or left the firearm in a place accessible to the minor.

3.1. Caps on parental liability for firearm injuries in California

Parental damages for a minor's use of a firearm are capped under California Civil Code 1714.3 at:

  • $30,000 for injury to or death of one person as a result of any one occurrence, and
  • $60,000 for injury to or death of all persons as a result of any one such occurrence.

4. Defenses to parental liability

Several defenses are available to parents who have been sued for injuries caused by their child. They include (but are not limited to):

  • The parent was not aware that the child had dangerous tendencies (for instance, because the child had never before been destructive or violent).
  • The child was not under the parent's control (for instance, because the parents were divorced and the child resided with the other parent – however, this is only a defense to direct liability, not vicarious liability, which can be based on either physical or legal custody).[9]
  • The child's actions did not cause the plaintiff's harm.
  • In the case of the child's use of a firearm, the parent's did not approve or authorize the child's use of the gun.

Injured by someone else's child in CA? Call us for help…

female receptionist

If you were injured in California by someone else's child, you may be entitled to compensation.

Call our experienced California injury personal lawyers at (855) 396-0370 to make sure you receive all the compensatory damages you are due.

Your consultation is free of charge and does not obligate you to use our services. Best of all you pay us nothing until you win your case or your suit is settled out-of-court.

We may also be able to help you if you were injured by someone else's child in Nevada.

Legal references: 

  1. California Civil Code 1714.1.
  2. California Civil Code 1714.3.
  3. California Civil Code 1714.1 (a).
  4. See e.g., Berkley v. Dowds (2007) 152 Cal.App.4th 518.
  5. California Civil Code 1714.1 (b).
  6. California Civil Code 1714.1 (c).
  7. California Civil Code 1714.1. (e).
  8. Ellis v. D'Angelo (1953) 116 Cal.App.2d 310California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 410; Robertson v. Wentz (1986) 187 Cal.App.3d 1281. See also Reida v. Lund (1971) 18 Cal.App.3d 698; Costello v. Hart (1972) 23 Cal.App.3d 898; Buelke v. Levenstadt 190 Cal. 684; Rocca v. Steinmetz, 61 Cal. App. 102; Poncher v. Brackett (1966) 246 Cal. App. 2d 769.

  9. Robertson v. Wentz, note 8.

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