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What do you do if your minor child has committed a crime? Can you be held responsible for his actions? Are you financially liable for any damages his crime might have caused?

Toledo, Ohio dog bite attorney Dale Emch addresses these tough question in his Toledo Blade “Legal Briefs” column. If you have a general legal question on topics such as car accidents, dog bites, or workers’ compensation, send them to Attorney Dale Emch. Attorney Emch may also consider the question for his bi-weekly column.

Dear Dale: My 4-year-old daughter told us recently that a 13-year-old boy touched her inappropriately. We called the police and took her to the hospital for an exam. I want to know what our legal options are. I want the boy’s parents to pay for her medical treatment and I’d like to know if I can sue them for his actions.

Answer: I think you’re going to have to watch where the criminal investigation goes before you start exploring any civil remedies you might have. My gut feeling is that a civil suit ultimately will be a waste of your time and emotional energy.

Under judge-made law, parents can be held liable for the wrongful acts of their minor children in limited circumstances. Parents can be on the hook for their child’s actions when they negligently entrust the child with something like a car or a gun when the child’s immaturity or inexperience makes them a danger to others.

Parents also can be liable when they don’t exercise reasonable control over their child even though they knew or should have known that their child probably would injure someone in a particular circumstance.

And, if a parent consents to a child’s wrongdoing, directs it, or allows it, the parent can be held responsible for any injuries caused by the child.

The Ohio Revised Code also has a section that allows parents to be held liable for a minor child’s willful and malicious assault by force likely to cause great bodily harm. Under that section, the parent’s liability is limited to $10,000 and the cost to bring the suit.

In your situation, I think you’re going to have to wait for the criminal investigation to conclude to see if the police determine that the sexual molestation occurred and, if so, if the evidence is sufficient to prove it. I won’t get into the difficulty of proving a case like this, especially with a 4-year-old victim, but it probably wouldn’t be easy unless the boy confessed or there’s DNA evidence.

Given the legal standard for a civil case, I think the only way you could hold the parents liable is if you could show that the boy’s parents knew he had previously committed this type of act and, despite that knowledge, they still left him unsupervised around little kids. In that scenario, you might have a viable claim against the parents.

But, even assuming the investigation reveals that information, it still might not be worth pursuing a civil claim. The parents’ homeowner’s or renter’s insurance would not cover them for this kind of intentional criminal act. That means that you would have to pursue the parents’ personal assets, which, in most situations, probably wouldn’t be that significant. That’s not always the case – the personal injury attorneys in our office have sued people without insurance coverage who have injured our clients, but it’s rare.

You also have the option of suing the boy. You could get a judgment against him and force him to start paying on it when he enters the workforce, but you’re not going to find many attorneys who would take that case.

Regardless of whether you could or should pursue a lawsuit, it might be worth your time to talk to the boy’s parents. I’m guessing that if they’re convinced their son molested your daughter, they’d be willing to pay for any medical treatment or counseling that she required.


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