Parents can be held responsible for kids' crimes

This week’s question comes from a reader (who asked to be anonymous) asking:

Q: “Last week, your article talked about a parent’s liability for the conduct of their kid engaging in a street race. My neighbor’s kid is a walking disaster. He does all kinds of stuff in the neighborhood like graffiti, breaking windows and who knows what else. Is there a way to hold his parents responsible for things he does besides driving offenses?”

A: While most of the cases discussing the liability of an adult for the acts of a child speak of the liability of the parent, the exact blood relationship is not the test. The duty of care is imposed upon the adult who has assumed responsibility for the child’s care and has the ability to exercise control.

The law provides for parental liability under certain circumstances. In the Costello v. Hart case, an appellate court held, as a general rule, “a parent is under a duty to exercise reasonable care so to control his/her minor child so as to prevent it from intentionally harming others or from so conducting itself as to create an unreasonable risk of bodily harm to them, if the parent a) knows or has reason to know that he/she has the ability to control his child, and b) knows or should know of the necessity and opportunity for exercising such control.”

In cases where the parent did not observe the child’s conduct that led to the injury, the parent has been held liable where the child had been aware of the child’s dangerous propensity or habit and negligently failed to exercise proper control or negligently failed to give appropriate warning. It is not necessary that the parent have knowledge of the child’s dangerous tendencies for any particular length of time provided the knowledge was acquired in time to give the child an opportunity to exercise reasonable measures to restrain the child. In other cases, where the parent did not observe and was not in a position to control the conduct that endangered the plaintiff, recovery was denied on the grounds that there was no showing that the parent knew of any dangerous tendency.

Pursuant to California Civil Code Section 1714.1, a minor’s willful misconduct causing injury or death to another, or damage to the property of another, “shall be imputed to the parent or guardian having custody and control of the minor” for civil-liability purposes. The parent’s (or guardian’s) imputed liability is joint and several (meaning either one, or both, is fully responsible) with the child. Parents have been held liable for things such as computer hacking and arson. The state has placed a maximum parental liability for each of the minor’s torts at $39,300. Further, in the case of injury to a person, a parent’s (or guardian’s) imputed liability is limited to medical, dental and hospital expenses. Section 1714.1, while imposing liability on parents, limits the obligation of their insurance companies to just $10,000.

As far as this neighborhood menace breaking windows, a case called Singer v. Marx addressed the liability of parents for rock throwing, stating that a mother who had knowledge of her child’s rock-throwing behavior could be held liable for her child’s conduct (but the father who did not know was not liable).

As to the issue of graffiti, under California Government Code Section 38772, a city or county may adopt an ordinance providing for the summary abatement of any nuisance resulting from the defacement of property by graffiti (or other inscribed material). The parent (or guardian) having custody and control of the minor responsible for the damage is jointly and severally liable with the minor meaning that the child remains liable for the harms caused and the parents have liability also.

The city can also levy costs on the parents for abatement. Abatement expenses include court costs, attorney fees, costs of graffiti removal, costs of repair and replacement of defaced property, and the law enforcement costs of apprehending the minor. If the parents refuse to pay for the abatement, the city or county may make the expense recoverable by placing a lien against the parent’s (or guardian’s) real property. (Real property is land and/or houses, personal property is cars, jewelry, boats, etc.)

The message for all of us parents: Mind your children or you will be held legally and financially responsible for the harms they cause. Drop a copy of this article in your neighbor’s mailbox. Maybe it will act as a wake-up call.

Christopher B. Dolan is owner of the Dolan Law Firm. Email questions to

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