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Parents' Liability for the Negligence of a Minor Child

Several states allow for a parent to be liable for the acts of his or her child or children. Massachusetts is one of these states. Massachusetts permits recovery via a “willful act” statute and under common law principles of liability, as discussed below.

In Massachusetts, the “willful act” statute applies if a child is over the age of seven and under the age of eighteen. The statute permits recovery against a parent if a child of the parent commits a “willful” act. The act by the minor child must result in injury or death to another person or damage to another’s property. This rule of law does not apply if the parent does not have legal custody of the child at the time that the act occurred. Massachusetts also caps the amount of possible economic-based recovery against the parents of the child at $5,000. Non-economic recovery is likely not permitted under this statute.

The statute requires that the child’s act must be “willful,” which means that the act must have been specifically intended by the child. The act would not include an accidental motor vehicle incident, for example. Possible examples of these types of acts could include a child’s shoplifting or a child committing an act of vandalism.

A parent could also be liable for the negligence of a minor child in Massachusetts under common law principles of liability. One court held:

“A parent has a duty to exercise reasonable care to prevent his minor child from intentionally or negligently inflicting harm on others, where the parent knows or should know of the child’s propensity for a particular type of harmful conduct and has the opportunity to take reasonable corrective measures.”[1]

The child must be a minor child.[2] The propensity for a particular type of harmful conduct must a dangerous tendency. This dangerous tendency should be more than a couple of incidents, so as to provide notice to the parent that the child has a tendency toward the specific behavior.[3] Also, the way in which a parent responds to a child’s dangerous behavior may impact a case. If a parent does nothing to restrain ill behavior by the child, the parent could be liable if that same behavior is rooted in the negligence. For example, if child is negligent with a motor vehicle and the parent does nothing to prevent the child from either using the motor vehicle or engaging in ill behavior with the motor vehicle, the parent may be liable under this common law principle of liability.

Massachusetts courts are cautioned to impose a broad sweep of liability on parents. Massachusetts courts do not want to “go far toward exposing parents to liability for torts of their children solely because of their parenthood.”[4]

Personal injury cases are often fact dependent and complex. They require an astute legal professional to handle the matter in a technical fashion. If you have any questions about personal injury matters, call us for a free consultation at 617-657-HURT (4878) or fill out our contact form here.

[1] Alioto v.Marnell, 402 Mass. 36, 38 (1988) (citing to Caldwell v. Zaher, 344 Mass. 590, 592 (1962))

[2] Alioto, 402 Mass. at 38.

[3] DePasquale v. Dello Russo, 349 Mass. 655, 659 (1965)

[4] Id. (See, Smith v. Jordan, 211 Mass. 269 (1912); McGowan v.Longwood, 242 Mass. 337 (1922))

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