Fox Family Lawyers
Cynthia Moseley Fox
Attorney at Law
7751 Carondelet Avenue,
Suite 700
Clayton, Missouri 63105
(St. Louis)
314.727.4880

When Are Parents Liable For The Actions Of Their Children?

Today, I have short quiz to test your sense of fairness and justice, as well as your knowledge of the law. If you are a parent, it’s particularly important that you pay attention because this quiz deals with the things kids do that their parents can be held legally accountable for.

 

Like most pop quizzes on the law, we’ll begin with a real-world case:

 

Let’s say you’re at the neighborhood “gas’n go” convenience store when all of sudden a car backs away from the front of the store and straight into the side of your car, hard enough to knock you down as you stand on the other side filling up. After dusting yourself off, you rush around to confront the imbecile driver only to find a 4-year old behind the wheel with the engine running. Just then a woman…the child’s mother…comes running out apologizing and explaining she had just popped in the store “for a minute” to use the ATM.

 

This is what happened to Jamie LeBlanc of St. Charles County when Wendy Patton’s 4-year old daughter, Skylar, climbed out of her car seat, got behind the wheel of mommy’s car, shifted it out of “park” (with the motor running), causing it to roll backward into Jamie’s car.

 

If you’re Jamie, you’re thinking that Wendy Patton’s decision to leave a small child in a car with the engine running makes her responsible for the physical injuries you sustained as a result of her daughter’s action. And, that’s exactly what Jamie believed. So imagine her surprise when her lawsuit in St. Charles County’s Circuit Court against Ms. Patton for $1500 was dismissed on a summary judgment without so much as a hearing!

 

Jamie then appealed to the Missouri Court of Appeals and fortunately, for Jamie, they agreed, sending the case back to St. Charles County so Jamie could finally get her day in court. In doing so, the Court of Appeals succinctly recapped the 5 circumstances where Missouri law “holds parents liable for the torts (wrongful or dangerous acts) of their minor children”.

 

I think the list bears repeating here for the benefit of our family-oriented readership. Parents can be held liable (that is, be sued in a court of law) where…

1.      The relationship of master and servant exists and the child is acting within the scope of his/her authority by the parent. Said another way: The child’s acts were directed by the parent.

2.      A parent is negligent in entrusting to a child an instrument which, because of its nature, use and purpose, is so dangerous as to constitute, in the hands of a child, an unreasonable risk to others.

3.      A parent is negligent in entrusting to a child an instrumentality which, though not necessarily a dangerous thing of itself, is likely to be put to a dangerous use because of the known propensities of the child.

4.      The parent’s negligence consists entirely of his/her failure reasonably to restrain the child from vicious conduct imperiling others, when the parent has knowledge of the child’s propensity towards such conduct.

5.      The parent participates in the child’s tortious acts by consenting to it or by ratifying it later and accepting the fruits.

 

For Jamie LeBlanc, the Court of Appeals ruled that she had presented enough information to the trial court that the court should have heard her lawsuit under the second circumstance. As the Court of Appeals wrote in its opinion: “…four year old children are too immature, incompetent, and reckless to be entrusted with an automobile.”

 

Now, we’ll have to wait and see if a St. Charles judge (or jury) agrees, but my money is on Jamie.