April 16, 2014

Parents’ Liability For Acts Of Children May Extend Beyond Age 18

This week’s question:

What type of financial or legal liability do parents have concerning a child once they turn 18? Specifically, I am wondering if an adult-child causes injury to person or property, will the adult-child be solely responsible for their actions once they are legal adults, and if not, what are the scenarios where the parents might be liable?

/s/Mark M.

Almaden Valley

Dear Mark-

Excellent question, Mr. Mark. Let me see if I can answer it satisfactorily for you.

Generally speaking, parental liability for acts of their children who have turned 18 ceases when the child has his or her eighteenth birthday and thus is a legal adult (for most purposes). However, having said that, I need to add quickly that there are a few important exceptions, often based on "special relationships".

One exception is where a parent, for example, would give the keys to the family car to an adult child knowing full well that the adult child had a long history of alcohol and/or drug abuse, previous "accidents" causing personal injuries, previous trips to juvenile hall, and the like.

If that adult child would go out and kill somebody in an automobile "accident" and the cause was the adult child’s drunk driving, it could well result in parental liability for the wrongful death of the other driver and/or passengers. Or his or her own passengers. A plaintiff’s lawyer might frame that suit against the parents in terms of negligent entrustment of the automobile. (Of course, the young adult child would probably have no assets to pay any claim.)

There have been several cases over the years where no duty of due care arises simply because of the parent-adult child relationship, but it has been recognized that entrusting an instrumentality to an improper or incompetent person, under circumstances that indicate a likelihood of misuse, may be grounds for liability. As mentioned above, one of the principal examples is entrustment of a motor vehicle to an incompetent, reckless, or intoxicated driver.

You can probably imagine a little bit different situation where a parent allows an adult child to use a hand-gun, knowing full well that the chances are great that the adult-child might kill or seriously injure someone. Again, the injured person or his or her heirs, might have grounds for a law suit based on negligent entrustment. However, it is important to note that every case is different and these cases often depend or turn on a few key facts.

For example, in the 1993 case of Todd v. Dow, the Court held that by allowing their adult, married son to store a firearm collection in his former bedroom, the parents did not assume a duty to supervise the son’s off-premises use of the firearms. The parents had no control over son, and had no ostensible reason to be concerned about the weapons.

In that case of Todd v. Dow, the son had exhibited no violent tendencies, threatened no one and intended no harm with the firearm. Neither the parent-child relationship nor the storage of the firearms at the parents’ home created a special relationship with third parties for firearms injuries occurring off the premises. In that case, an antique rifle accidentally discharged while the son and an adult cousin engaged in mock hand-to-hand combat with bayoneted rifles. Sadly, the injured person was rendered a paraplegic.

In cases like this, the court will often look to whether it was foreseeable that a firearm would accidentally discharge, causing serious injuries and whether there is a close connection between the parents’ conduct and the victim’s injury. Also, the Court will look at whether there was any legal duty of due care on behalf the parents to supervise and/or control the adult child’s use of the firearm. And, moral blame is often a key element.

One of the key issues also will be whether the parents had the ability to control the adult child. The absence of any ability to control the adult child could well be fatal to a claim of legal responsibility. In the Todd v. Dow case, it could have been different if the parents gave, loaned, furnished, or supplied the rifle to the son instead of merely allowing the son to store the rifle at their house.

As you can see, Mr. Mark, even a few different facts could make a huge difference in finding legal liability against the parents. That’s why you need to use a little common sense about potentially dangerous instrumentalities, such as vehicles and weapons. A little common sense will go a long way.

Finally, a whole separate area of the law deals with liability insurance coverage that involves the construction of insurance provisions relating to the insured’s "residence," "household," "family," and the like, or to their occupants or members. That is a topic for another day.

/s/Donald J. DeVries

Almaden Valley

Donald J. DeVries is an attorney practicing law in the Almaden Valley. Past Almaden Times articles since 1986 can be accessed through his web site: www.almadenvalleylawers.com . If you would like him to answer your question in his next Almaden Times column, you can reach him by email at don@almadenvalleylawyers.com, with "Almaden Times" in the subject line, fax at (408)268-6502, telephone at (408)268-9500, or mail at DeVries & Horowitz, 6475 Camden Avenue, Suite 200, San Jose, CA 95120. Your matters are personal and private, so of course, he will not disclose your identity or any details about your situation. Mr. DeVries writes this column to provide you with general information about important legal matters affecting California residents-not to give you legal advice about your specific matter. No attorney-client relationship is created by these articles. The law is complex and constantly changing and varies from state to state. So you should consult an attorney before taking any action that would affect your personal or business matters.