Parents are not generally liable for the actions of their minor children (under age 18). There are exceptions, however. Parents may be liable if the child causes damages or injuries that were reasonably foreseeable, or where the minor was acting as the agent of the parent, or where the parent was negligent in supervising the minor, or in entrusting the minor with the instrument that caused damage or injury.
Q: Our 16-year-old daughter recently began driving. Might we be found liable for any damage or injury she might cause while driving?
A: You will generally not be held liable for damages to person or property that your minor child causes while operating a motor vehicle. However, Ohio's financial responsibility laws say 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 you entrust the family car to your daughter, but she is not fit to operate it (say, for instance, she has had a problem with drinking and driving), then you may be held liable for “negligently entrusting” the vehicle to your daughter. Owners will generally be responsible for damages or injuries caused by anyone to whom they negligently entrust their vehicle.
You might also be held liable if your daughter causes damage or injury while acting as your agent (for example, by doing an errand for your family’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 you knew or should have known, using reasonable diligence, that he has the drug in the home. If you knowingly permit this behavior, consequences can be as drastic as criminal charges against a parent for possession of the drug under the laws of “constructive possession” (which apply when a child has possession of a 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), you could suffer a criminal forfeiture of your home.
Q: Our daughter is 21 years old, but lives with us 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: Parental responsibility generally ends when a child reaches age 18 unless the child is mentally or physically handicapped or remains enrolled in high school. For the most part, a child is emancipated and parental responsibility and liability ends at age 21, although actions based on “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. Child welfare authorities will not normally scrutinize parental decisions about medical care for minor afflictions. 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. Such a court finding may result in the parents losing temporary or permanent custody of the child. 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 ask a court to declare my minor child emancipated, 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. Some states have passed laws for this purpose, but Ohio remains a “common law” state regarding this issue. Past court cases have held that, except by reaching age 18, a child can become emancipated only by marriage or entry into the military service. Moreover, you cannot file any action to permit the child to legally move out of your home without a legal custodian and to relieve you from parental responsibility or liability for your child’s actions.
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, if you or your child faces legal action, to 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 of the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court. It was updated by Seneca Konturas, a criminal defense and juvenile law attorney practicing in northeast Ohio.