Recent shootings in the nation's schools, and other cases in which injuries have resulted from the malicious actions of minors who have gained access to deadly weapons, have highlighted the responsibilities of parents for their children's criminal actions. Aside from the harm done to the victims of such crimes and the extremely painful and life-altering consequences for children who commit criminal acts using guns, parents may also be found liable for failing to take reasonable steps to prevent their children from obtaining guns.
While the actions of the minor are generally considered criminal in nature, victims may be able to bring a separate civil action against the parents of the minor who committed the criminal act.
Several Ohio laws address this issue. Within the Ohio Revised Code, Section 3109.09 defines who a parent is; Section 3109.10 defines the liability of parents for assaults by their children; and, Section 2307.70 provides an extension for certain specific criminal acts committed by the minor, up to $15,000, from the general $10,000 parental limit of liability.
Q: We keep a registered gun in our house for protection. Can we be held liable if one of our children finds the gun and harms someone else?
A: Generally, parents can only be held liable for the intentional (willful and malicious) criminal or tortious acts of their children that cause personal injury or death to another, and for acts such as theft or vandalism that cause loss or damage. Under the current version of Ohio Revised Code Section 3109.10, the statutory limit for liability is $10,000 plus the costs of the legal action. The improper or illegal use of a gun by a child resulting in injury or death to another is covered by this parental liability statute.
If the parent or custodian is careless (negligent) in storing a gun, or permits the child to have access to it, the parent can be held liable for negligence in failing to properly secure the weapon or simply permitting the child to have access to it. Claims against the parent in this regard are typically known as “negligent entrustment” or “negligent supervision.” Civil liability is but one of two possible consequences to parents if a child improperly uses a gun.
Parents may also be criminally liable for such actions in Ohio. State laws prohibit an adult from contributing to the delinquency or neglect of a minor, and other statutes prohibit adults from furnishing firearms to minors except for legitimate sporting purposes such as hunting. Also, some local communities have enacted city ordinances that impose criminal liability on parents for failing to properly secure a firearm in a manner that is reasonably calculated to prevent a minor from obtaining possession of the weapon. Crime classifications for violation of these statutes range from a first-degree misdemeanor to a fifth-degree felony, and fines and jail terms may be imposed as sanctions.
There are, of course, exceptions to these general rules, and Ohio’s courts review each case on its own merits. As such, it is important that if you or your child faces legal action, you should consult with a qualified lawyer who can offer legal advice to determine your best course of action.
This “Law You Can Use” legal information column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. It was originally prepared by Dick Graham, a magistrate for the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court, and was updated by Seneca Konturas, a criminal defense and juvenile law attorney practicing in northeast Ohio.