Whose Fault is it?

Occasionally, children do foolish things. In fact, probably everyone reading this blog post right now can think of at least one thing they did in their childhood that was foolish, reckless, dangerous, or all of the above. For many of us, breaking toys and getting occasional bumps and bruises were simply part of being a kid. The grown-up concept of “liability” never crosses the mind of a child.

As risk-averse adults, though, dealing with “liability oblivious” children can be stressful. When little Johnny decides to play a “prank” on his friend Billy by loosening the bolts on his bicycle and he subsequently gets injured in a bicycle accident, can Billy’s parents sue Johnny’s? Maine law addressed this question by adopting the Restatement Second of Torts with respect to parental liability.

This Restatement Provision States:

A parent is under a duty to exercise reasonable care to control their minor children to prevent them from conducting themselves as to create an unreasonable risk of bodily harm to others if the parent…

  • Knows or has reason to know that they have the ability to control their child.
  • Knows or should know of the necessity and opportunity for exercising such control.

Merchant v. Mansir, 572 A.2d 493, 494 (Me. 1990) citing Restatement 2nd of Torts § 316 (1985)

In Merchant v. Mansir, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a stepparent was not liable when their child’s friend was injured while riding a defective bicycle belonging to the family. Because there was no evidence that the stepparent knew that the child was visiting the home or that the children would be riding bicycles, let alone defective bicycles. Ultimately, they had no idea that they knew, or should have known, that they needed to “control” their child with regard to this activity.

Meanwhile, in Richards v. Soucy, 610 A.2d 268 (Me. 1992), the Maine Supreme Judicial Court held that the parents of an injured child could maintain an action against parents of another child when their child was injured while playing at a friend’s house. Specifically, the parents of the injured child alleged that the child’s friend intentionally or negligently caused their child to fall from monkey bars at this friend’s home and the parents were negligent in failing to “appropriately supervise the children’s play.”

There is also a Maine statute that states:

“If a minor who is between the ages of 7-17 willfully or maliciously causes damage to property or injury to a person, the minor would have been liable for the damage or injury if the minor were an adult, and they live with their parents or guardians, the parents or guardians are liable with the minor for damage or injury. 14 M.R.S. § 304 (2012).”

The damages under this statute capped at $800. However, this statute does not relieve a minor child from personal liability for any damage or injury. My goal here has been to give you some general ideas about the boundaries of parental liability.

There are other specific scenarios that may lead to additional parental liability, but I will save those for another time. Overall, the best way to avoid liability is to keep an eye on what your children and their guests do. Teach them that their actions have far-reaching consequences.