Posted on 03/16/2012 at 12:07 PM by David Repp
Times have changed since the days of trouble-maker Dennis the Menace. Children with access to weapons are using them against their classmates and teachers. New, exotic drugs and late night activities lead children to drug addiction at an earlier age. Ready access to credit cards allows children to ring-up overwhelming debt. The Internet allows teens and preteens to purchase hundreds of thousands of dollars of merchandise on websites such as e-Bay and Amazon. To what extent can Iowa parents be liable for the damages caused by their children? Generally, under common law, parents are not responsible for damages caused by their children unless the damages can be directly attributable to some action or inaction of the parent. This can happen in a couple of different ways. One way is if a parent directs a child to do a certain act that causes injury. Jolly v. Doolittle, 169 Iowa 658, 149 N.W. 890 (1914). An example may be a parent telling his child to beat-up another child at school. Id. Another way a parent may be liable is if the parent is negligent and such negligence causes his or her child to injure someone. Courts have held parents liable in this manner when, for instance, they entrusted a child with a dangerous instrument, such as a gun. Vallency v. Rigillo, 91 N.J.L. 307, 102 A. 348 (1917). Parents were also liable when they permitted a mentally incompetent child to drive the family car. Gossett v. Van Egmond, 176 Ore. 134, 146-47, 155 P.2d 304, 309-10 (1945). Even failure to warn a baby sitter of a childs particular violent characteristic can lead to parental liability. Ellis v. DAngelo, 116 Cal. App. 2d 310, 317-18, 253 P.2d 675, 679 (1953). In 1969, in hopes of motivating parents to better control their juvenile delinquent children, the Iowa Legislature passed the Iowa Parental Responsibility Act. Iowa Code Section 613.16 (2011). The Act makes parents of unemancipated minor children liable for their childrens unlawful acts up to $2,000 for any one act and not more than $5,000 for two or more acts to the same claimant. The statutory limit is in addition to, rather than in lieu of, the liability a parent may have under common law. Therefore, a parent may be liable under the Act for their childrens unlawful acts no matter how closely they are supervised or controlled. In Iowa, a minor child is considered to be an unmarried person under the age of eighteen. Iowa Code Section 599.1 (1999). The Act does not define the term unemancipated although it does provide that a parent who is not entitled to legal custody of the minor child at the time of the unlawful act shall not be liable for such damages. Also unclear under the Act is the extent to which the Act may apply to adoptive parents, stepparents, foster parents or guardians. The liability limit is a lifetime limit. Therefore, a parent will never be liable for more than $5,000 to any one person for the multiple acts of a single child. However, if multiple children are involved in the same act, a claimant may be entitled to a multiple of the limit. See e.g. Lewis v. Martin, 45 Ohio Op. 2d 2, 24, 240 N.E.2d 913, 915 (1968) (holding two parents of four minor children liable for the maximum of $250 on each of the four children). The Act will not subject a parent to liability for contracts entered into by a minor child. In most cases, even the minor child may not be liable for his or her contracts. Iowa Code Section 599.2 provides that minors are not bound by a contract if they disaffirm the contract within a reasonable time after they reach the age of majority and restore to the other party all money or property then in the possession of the minor as a result of the contract. However, a minor cannot disaffirm contracts for necessities, such as a rental agreement for an apartment. Iowa Code Section 599.2 (2011). Also, a minors contract cannot be disaffirmed when a minor misrepresents his or her age as being of majority and the other contracting party had good reason to believe the minor was capable of contracting. Iowa Code Section 599.3 (2011).