Halloween Mischief: Can Parents Be Held Liable for Their Child’s Acts?

Smashing pumpkins and “TPing” are relatively common occurrences on nights like Halloween. Usually, such naughtiness doesn’t result in any kind of criminal charges or civil suits against the perpetrators due to the general understanding that “it happens” and is not meant to hurt anybody. But when does the innocent prank lose out to the legal rights of those who suffer property damage at the hands of such mischief? Generally, legal liability enters the picture when something more valuable than a pumpkin is damaged.

This article will not reach the criminal implications of Halloween pranks. It is instead meant for parents with minor children who may be held liable for the actions of their kids.

Can Parents Be Sued for the Actions of their Kids?

In short, yes – but not always. Depending on the state, parents may be liable for torts (or “wrongs”) committed by their children. Usually, if the action of the child was purely accidental, parents will not be held liable. A parent is much more likely to be held liable if the child has done the same type of thing before (in legal terms, if the parent had “notice” that the child engaged in that type of activity).

Usually parental liability only kicks in after the child is 8 or 10 years old – the age when a child can generally decide to do or not to do something of his or her own volition. When the child reaches 18, parents can no longer be held liable. In some circumstances, parental liability may expire before age 18, like when the child has been legally emancipated. 

Why Should I Be Responsible for Something My Kid Does?

The idea behind parental responsibility laws is that parents can exercise reasonable control over their children. The legal term for this is “vicarious liability.” A parent is better equipped to supervise his or her child than anybody else is, and also is more likely than the child to be able to pay for any property damage.

Some states limit liability to a certain amount of money, or only allow parental liability for certain kinds of actions. For example, a state may allow a parent to be liable for personal injury damages (hospital bills, etc.) up to a certain amount. Or, a state may only hold parents liable when the child’s actions were intentional (not accidental or negligent).

If your child smashes a pumpkin, it is unlikely you will be sued for damages since pumpkins are not worth much (if anything). If, however, your kid smashes a pumpkin on someone’s head or knocks over a valuable statue in the process, you may be sued to cover the damages.

Determining the Legal “Parent”

Under parental liability laws, a parent is generally someone who has parental rights and responsibilities over the child. For a divorced couple, the custodial and residential parent is the one who will be liable (because he or she is more able to exercise control over the child). If the child lives with someone besides a parent, such as a grandparent, the grandparent is more likely to be held liable.

The guiding principle is that the person with the most control over the child will be the one held liable. Parents can also be held directly liable for negligent supervision of their children.

Actions Covered By Parental Liability Laws

As stated above, parental liability laws generally cover any intentional actions of the child, and sometimes negligent acts as well, depending on the law in your state. Pure accidents are usually not covered. If a child vandalizes a building, hurts someone, or is at fault in a crash with your car, you will probably be held liable for those actions.

Remember, you are not the only one who will be held liable – the child will as well. If the child has his or her own savings account or bond, the person suing may well recover from that first.