Parents May Be Liable for Child's Actions

Q.: Our 16-year-old daughter recently began driving. Since she is a minor, would we be found liable for any damage or injury she might cause while operating a car?

A.: Parents will generally not be held liable for damages to person or property caused by their children's operation of a motor vehicle. There are exceptions to this general rule, however. Ohio's financial responsibility laws provide that the parent signing the child's application for an operator's license can be liable for damage or injury caused by the child's operation of the family motor vehicle if that parent fails to provide the insurance required by state law.

Also, if the parent "negligently entrusts" the family motor vehicle to a child who is not fit to operate it (say, for instance, the child has had a problem with drinking and driving), the parent may be held liable for "negligently entrusting" the vehicle to the child. Owners will generally be responsible for damages or injuries caused by anyone to whom they negligently entrust their vehicle.

A parent might also be held liable for damage or injury caused by a minor child who is acting as the parent's agent (for example, by doing an errand for the parent's business). Again, this liability is not limited to the parent/child relationship, but to anyone acting as an agent for another person.

Q.: We recently discovered that our 14-year-old son has been using marijuana, and we suspect he has brought it into the house. Can we be held responsible for his illegal activity?

A.: Generally not, unless the parent knows or should have known, using reasonable diligence, that the child has the drug in the home. If a parent knowingly permits this behavior, consequences for the parent can be as drastic as criminal charges against the parent for possession of the drug under the laws of "constructive possession" (which apply when the child has possession of the drug in the house or other area under the legal control of the parent). In extreme cases (for example, when the child is selling or giving the drug to a friend while in the house), the parent could suffer a criminal forfeiture of the home.

Q.: Our daughter is 21 years old, but lives with us right now while she gets her life together. Since she is an adult, can we be held responsible for any of her actions while she is living at home?

A.: The age of majority in Ohio is 18, and parental responsibility generally ends at that age unless the child is mentally or physically handicapped or remains enrolled in high school. For the most part, once a child reaches the age of 21, the child is emancipated and parental responsibility and liability ends, although actions based upon "negligent entrustment" or other similar theories may apply regardless of the parent/child relationship.

Q.: Can parents be found liable for failing to get medical or psychological treatment for a minor child? If so, what can happen to the parents?
A.: Generally, parents have the right and responsibility to decide what kind of medical or mental health treatment their children receive. Parental decisions about medical care for everyday colds, bruises, and other minor afflictions will normally not be scrutinized by child welfare authorities. However, failing to obtain necessary medical or mental health treatment for a minor child that threatens the overall welfare of the child may result in a petition being filed in the juvenile court and a finding that the child is neglected or dependent. As a result of such a court finding, the parents may lose temporary or permanent custody of the child. In addition to the loss of custody, parents may also be subject to criminal prosecution for criminal medical neglect unless they can demonstrate that they intended to treat the child spiritually under the practice of a religious belief.

Q.: Can I have my minor child declared emancipated by a court or can my child petition a court for such an order?

A.: There is no statutory provision in Ohio to permit parents or a child to file a petition seeking an order to declare the child emancipated. Although some states have passed laws for this purpose, Ohio remains a "common law" state with regard to this issue. Past court cases have held that, except by reaching the age of majority, the only way for a child to become emancipated is by marriage or entry into the military service. Moreover, there is no action that may be filed to permit the child to legally move out of his or her home without a legal custodian and to relieve parents from parental responsibility or liability for the actions of the child.

The information contained herein is general and should not be applied to specific legal problems without first consulting with one of our attorneys.

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