Patch.com asked me an interesting question: Is a parent liable for a child’s prank? My perfect legal is answer is…wait for it…it depends. Let me rephrase the question slightly. Is a parent liable if a child does something that, had the child been an adult, the child would be liable for? I have researched a lot of cases on this subject, and I think the fact pattern in the case of Snow v. Nelson is the most interesting. For lawyers, the case originated at the appellate level as Snow v. Nelson, 450 So. 2d 269 (Fla. 3d DCA 1984). The Third DCA certified the question of whether and to what extent parents can be held liable for torts of their children. The Florida Supreme Court case is Snow v. Nelson, 475 So. 2d 225 (Fla. 1985).
JUST THE FACTS:
The facts are these: A child that we will call Goliath had a history of being violent to kids younger and smaller than him. Goliath is 14 years old. Goliath convinced his 13-year-old playmate to play a rudimentary game of croquet (let’s call him David, but the real names are in the case). I am not sure what country croquet originated from, but I do know it uses a two-sided mallet to play. When Goliath started to lose because David was faster, Goliath hit David with the mallet. David’s parents’ sued Goliath’s parents for Goliath’s actions.
Clearly had an adult hit another adult with a mallet, the adult would be liable for any injuries.
The Third District Court of Appeal (the first level of courts that reviews circuit trial court decisions) provided the best history of parental responsibility for the wrongful actions of children I have read thus far. The Court said in traditional legalese:
“One of the more inscrutable holdovers from the ancient establishments of the common law is the historically ubiquitous idea that a parent who has visited upon the world a tort-inflicting child ought not to be held financially responsible for the torts that the child has in turn visited upon those of us unfortunate enough to have gotten in the way.”
Translation: In England back in the day when there were knights in shining armor, no toilet paper to tee-pee the neighbor, hoses and door bells did not exist, and kids grew up much quicker, parents were not responsible for the acts of the children. Notice the use of the word “ancient.”
However, as society and the court system developed, so did the ancient “common” law. As such, there are now four exceptions to the ancient rule where a parent is responsible for the torts of the child:
(1) where the parent entrusts the child with an instrumentality which, because of the child's lack of age, judgment, or experience, may become a source of danger to others;
(2) where the child committing the tort is acting as the servant or agent of its parents;
(3) where the parent consents, directs, or sanctions the wrongdoing; and
(4) where the parent fails to exercise control over the minor child although the parent knows or with due care should know that injury to another is possible.
The first three examples are simple enough. Do not give your child a gun and send the child off to elementary school. Do not pay your child to steal or commit violence at your request. And do not say that it is OK for your child to start a fight at school.
The fourth exception, where the parent fails to exercise control over the minor child although the parent knows or with due care should know that injury to another is possible, creates a much different scenario. To me this is a very broad category.
In the Snow v. Nelson case, the Florida Supreme Court determined that because Goliath had not shown a propensity in the past to swing a croquet mallet at another child, the parents could not be held liable for Goliath’s actions. Interestingly, however, it was proven that Goliath had a “propensity to be rough with smaller children by pushing or hitting them and that his parents were aware of this propensity.”
I picked the Snow v. Nelson case because I thought the facts were clear on liability: Older kid with propensity to hurt younger and smaller kid plays with smaller kid, but rather than hit or push the smaller kid, he hits him with a croquet mallet. Solution: No liability according to the Florida Supreme Court.
The beauty of the law is that there will never be a clear-cut answer to most legal questions. There are two sides to the legal coin. Had Goliath hit David with a fist, this would likely have been a different case.