A question we see occasionally that merits some discussion on our blog is parental liability for the actions of their kids. Mainly, we are seeing this in the tween/teen years where young people are still subject to their parents’ rules but also are trying to establish their independence. If a child commits a tortious act or injures another person, are the parents responsible? Where do we draw the line in Missouri? I hope to answer of few of these questions below.
The Rule in Missouri
The general rule in Missouri concerning parental liability is stated as follows:
“Parents are NOT liable in damages for the torts of their minor children merely because of their status as parents.” Stonger ex rel. Stonger v. Riggs,21 S.W.3d 18, 21 (Mo.App.W.D.2000) (emphasis added)
The rule is straightforward (just because you are a parent, you shouldn’t have to control your kid 24/7) but there are five exceptions:
“(1) where the relationship of master and servant exists and the child is acting within the scope of his authority accorded by the parent; (2) where a parent is negligent in entrusting to the child an instrument which, because of its nature, use, and purpose, is so dangerous as to constitute, in the hands of the child, an unreasonable risk to others; (3) where a parent is negligent in entrusting to the 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) where the parent’s negligence consists entirely of his failure reasonably to restrain the child from vicious conduct imperiling others, when the parent has knowledge of the child’s propensity towards such conduct; and (5) where the parent participates in the child’s tortious act by consenting to it or by ratifying it later and accepting the fruits.”
LeBlanc v. Patton, 247 S.W.3d 573 (Mo. Ct. App. 2008)
Most of these exceptions revolve around the reasonableness of the parents and their knowledge of the child’s behavior. Essentially, if a parent gives their child a gun and he kills someone, the parent can be held liable. The same can be said if a parent gives their 12 year old child the keys to the car for a joyride. The parents can and should be held responsible. Also, if a parent tells a child to go injure someone, the parent should be held responsible. These explanations are fairly straightforward. But what about the parent whose child is a bully at school or the parent who fails to reprimand his or her child after they have injured someone? The liability can begin to get a little murky. It can get especially murky because insurance companies have gotten wise to this case law and routinely excluded covering many tortious acts of children. A simple review of any homeowners’ policy would show how many exclusions for coverage have popped up regarding bullying, cyber-bullying and negligent supervision.
The main crux of the law in Missouri is this: If you are a parent, you need to have accountability for your child IF you know of their bad behavior and fail to act and/or you put your child in a position to injure someone.
In Missouri, right now there are a good deal of cases concerning parental knowledge of a child’s propensity to commit a crime or tort. One of the recent cases handed down from the Court of Appeals is Ridgell v. McDermott, 427 S.W.3d 310 (2014). In this case, a student in the Special School District assaulted the teacher by kicking her in the head. The teacher alleged the parents were aware of multiple other violent acts where the student attacked teachers and students and the parents failed to do anything about it. Specifically, this case claimed the parents failed to take any preventative measures to modify the son’s behavior, including therapy, counseling, medication, following recommendations from the school, temporary suspension, etc…The teacher pursued this case under a negligent supervision theory, claiming the parents were negligent in supervising their own child. That is a tough case to make but it can be made with the right facts. This case seems to have them—it is alleged by the plaintiff that the child was never removed from school despite several attacks, the recommendations of the school and healthcare professionals was disregarded, etc…
The law in Missouri imposes a duty on parents to act when they know their child is dangerous or is prone to committing tortious actions. The logic is simple—who else is in a better position to supervise children? And whose job is it to discipline children and teach them right from wrong? The parents are in the best position. They are most capable of disciplining and teaching their kids. That is the goal in Missouri, to promote strong parenting so that others are safer and someone is responsible for unruly children.