A question that we get often is whether a parent can be liable for damages caused by the actions of his or her child. The answer is yes, a parent can be held liable. However, if you are a parent and reading this, don‘t panic! The liability is limited in all but rare circumstances.
Under the New Mexico Children‘s Code, a parent‘s liability for the acts of a child is limited to $4000. The statute actually addresses the actions of the child in terms of malicious or willful conduct. In other words, the parent‘s responsibility is limited to $4000 even if the child maliciously or willfully (intentionally) harms another.
The act does not specifically address negligence of a child but it seems clear that negligence would be subsumed under malicious and willful conduct. After all, if a parent‘s liability is limited in cases of intentional conduct then it would defy common sense to hold the parent liable for the accidental damages caused by a child.
There are many cases where the limitations under the statute would not apply. For instance, if the parent is aware of the child‘s behavior and does nothing to stop it, the parent may be imputed liability. This however would not technically be liability for the acts of the child but for the actions or inactions of the parent. This exception is rarer than one might think despite the gut feeling that would suggest parents should take responsibility for the harmful behavior of their children.
One not too uncommon situation where a parent is liable (subject to the limits of the statute) is in the negligent entrustment of a vehicle to a minor. Under the New Mexico Jury Instructions, a person may be held liable for the negligent entrustment of a vehicle where the person “knew or should have known” that the person (in this case the child) “was likely to use the vehicle in such a manner as to create an unreasonable risk of harm to others.”
Of course, it must then be shown that indeed the child was negligent and the child‘s negligence resulted in harm to another. This would thus require that it be shown both the child was negligent and that the parent had a reasonable expectation that the child would drive negligently. The second part of this requirement would require a showing of a poor driving history or other dangerous propensities on the part of the child.
In the case of teenagers, a poor driving history is almost a given. So there must be more than just the typical errors associated with the driving learning curve. There must be something suggesting something approaching recklessness. This might include numerous speeding tickets with very excessive speeds, drinking and driving, the use of drugs (both illegal and prescription) that would impair driving ability, and/or prior accidents associated with the foregoing.
These cases would be covered by the parent‘s auto liability insurance. In cases involving harm above and beyond insurance coverage limits, there might be the possibility of liability beyond the policy limits. However, as a practical matter, this is often not feasible. After all, if the parent is carrying nominal liability coverage, it is likely that there are few assets upon which to collect.
In any event, if you are harmed by the negligence of a child, do not assume that you can go after the parents. Auto accident cases are really the exception to parental responsibility for the negligence of a child. Even then, the liability and recovery is typically dictated by insurance. If you are a parent and your child has caused harm to another, in most cases, your child‘s actions will not destroy you financially.
Whether you are in the first group of parents or the second, it is advisable to seek the advice on an experienced personal injury attorney. These cases have many complexities that are typically best addressed by an experienced attorney.
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