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Parents: What’s Your Legal Liability for Your Minor Children? Alcohol, Drugs, and the Law

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

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As a parent, there’s a long list of things to worry about when you think your teenager may be experimenting with alcohol and drugs. You want to get them all the help you can, of course. You want them to be happy, well-adjusted, and free of complicating addictions and other psychological issues that may affect their well-being. You’re concerned for their health, their school performance, their social life, and their future. If they’re hanging with a rowdy crowd, you may be afraid they’ll get into trouble with the law. They could end up in court, sentenced to juvenile detention, probation, or assigned hundreds of hours of community service. While some argue those hard consequences may be the wake-up call they need to snap them out of a cycle of poor decision-making associated with the risk and novelty seeking that characterizes adolescence, a court visit can also leave them with a permanent mark on their record that could hamper their ability to get a good job or get into college – if that’s the path they’re on.

But have you wondered about the legal consequences of your child’s behavior on you?

If you haven’t, you should.

Continue reading, especially the example scenarios further down in the article, to learn when you could be held responsible for your child’s behavior, and when your child could be criminally responsible for what happens to another child if they use drugs together.

California Law: Parental Liability for Minor Children

Before we address questions directly related to alcohol and drugs, let’s define the general parameters of the legal discussion regarding parental liability for the actions of their minor children. There can be a lot of gray area in the application of laws around parental liability for the actions of their minor children, but some aspects of the California code are straightforward and easy to understand. The first thing you should know is how the intentional acts of your minor children relate to your liability as parents and/or guardians. Here’s where California law stands on the issue:

California Civil Code section 1714.1, for intentional misconduct of a minor child.

“Any act of willful misconduct of a minor that results in injury or death to another person or in any injury to the property of another shall be imputed to the parent…for all purposes of civil damages, and the parent or guardian having custody and control shall be jointly and severally liable with the minor for any damages resulting from the willful misconduct.”

Upon implementation of the law, The State of California limited financial liability for each intentional act by a minor child to $25,000. The state since adjusted this amount to $35,000 per act. The law is reviewed every two years by a judicial council, and the amount is subject to change after each review.

Your takeaway as a parent: if your teenager uses alcohol or drugs – which can clearly impair judgment and potentially lead to misconduct – and commits a crime resulting in injury, death, or property damage, you bear the onus of financial responsibility. Not to mention the emotional nightmare suffered by all involved if willful misconduct leads to death.

California law is also clear with regards to parental liability on matters involving firearms:

California Civil Code section 1714.3, regarding firearms.

“Civil liability for any injury to the person or property of another proximately caused by the discharge or a firearm by a minor under the age of 18 years shall be imputed to a parent or guardian having custody and control of the minor for all purposes of civil damages…such parent shall be jointly and severally liable with such minor for any damages resulting from such act if the parent either permitted the minor to have a firearm or left the firearm in a place accessible to the minor.”

The state limited parental liability in the case of injury due to the discharge of a firearm to $30,000 for injury or death of one person, and to a total of $60,000 for injury or death to all persons involved in a single event. Your takeaway here is the same as above: in addition to suffering horrible emotional consequences, you bear significant financial responsibility.

In addition to general willful misconduct and misconduct related to firearms, California law is clear regarding the liability of parents and legal guardians for damages caused by minors while operating a motor vehicle:

California Vehicle Code section 17707.

 “Any civil liability of a minor arising out of his driving a motor vehicle…is hereby imposed upon the person who signed and verified the application of the minor for a license, and the person shall be jointly and severally liable with the minor for any damages proximately resulting from the negligent or wrongful act or omission of the minor in driving a motor vehicle.”

It’s important to understand that though the willful misconduct statute sets liability limits at $25,000 for damages, California’s driving related statutes hold parents liable for losses related to the pain and suffering of the victim as well, which can easily add up to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the situation, injuries, and other circumstances. Your takeaway: if your minor child causes and accident resulting in injury, you bear responsibility. Insurance will cover these expenses up to a certain point, depending on your plan, but beyond that, the burden is yours.

Parent Legal Liability for Minor Alcohol and Drug Use at Parties:

The Social Host Accountability Laws

Let’s start with the obvious and well-known fact that providing alcohol to a minor is a misdemeanor crime that falls under the category of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Here’s how California law reads with regards to alcohol and drugs:

California Business & Professions Code §25658.2.

“(a) A parent or legal guardian who knowingly permits his or her child, a person in the company of the child, or both, who are under the age of 18 years, to consume and alcoholic beverage or use a controlled substance at the home of the parent or legal guardian is guilty of a misdemeanor if all of the following occur:

  1. As a result of the consumption of an alcoholic beverage of use of a controlled substance at the home of the parent of legal guarding, the child or other underage person has a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.05 percentage or greater…or is under the influence of a controlled substance.
  2. The parent knowingly permits that child or other underage person, after leaving the parent’s or legal guardian’s home, to drive a vehicle.
  3. That child or underage person is found to have caused a traffic collision while driving the vehicle.

(b) A person who violates subdivision (a) shall be punished by imprisonment in a county jail for a term not to exceed one year, by a fine not exceeding $1,000, or by both imprisonment and fine.”

So far, everything we’ve addressed is cut and dried. Parents and legal guardians are financially responsible for the willful acts of misconduct committed by their minor children which result in injury, death, or damage to property. The laws are specific with regards to general misconduct and acts involving firearms. The law around alcohol is also specific, but unlike the willful misconduct laws, consequences may involve a jail sentence of up to a year. The alcohol law differs in another way: to be held liable, parents must “knowingly permit” their minor child, or another child in their company, to consume alcohol in amounts that result in a blood alcohol content of over 0.05.

Here’s where the gray area comes in: what happens when you allow your minor child to have friends over at your house, they consume alcohol or drugs without your knowledge, and bad things happen?

Let’s examine a couple of plausible scenarios where liability may not be so obvious.

Scenario # 1: You allow your minor child to have a party at your house. You hide in your bedroom and let the kids do as they will. It turns out they were drinking without your knowledge. One of the kids drives home drunk, gets in an accident, and dies.  

Could you be liable for letting them drink in your home?

The short answer: yes, you could.

That’s scary.

As a parent, your legal liability in this case is determined by a group of laws related to child abuse, negligence, and negligent supervision. Legally speaking, negligence is defined as “the failure to exercise the care that a reasonable person would exercise in the same circumstance.” The wording “reasonable person would exercise in the same circumstance” is almost universally consistent in negligence laws governing a broad range of circumstances in all fifty states.

Here’s how the law in California reads:

California code 11165.2.

“As used in this article, “neglect” means the negligent treatment or the maltreatment of a child by a person responsible for the child’s welfare under circumstances indicating harm or threatened harm to the child’s health or welfare. The term includes both acts and omissions on the part of the responsible person.

(a) “Severe neglect” means the negligent failure of a person having the care or custody of a child to protect the child from severe malnutrition or medically diagnosed nonorganic failure to thrive. “Severe neglect” also means those situations of neglect where any person having the care or custody of a child willfully causes or permits the person or health of the child to be placed in a situation such that his or her person or health is endangered…”

The scenario describe above can be complicated by another factor. If you know your child needs to be controlled, but you take no action to control them, you may be guilty of negligent supervision. This means that if you know your child drinks, but you fail to adequately supervise them, and they willfully provide alcohol to another minor in their company, your legal liability may increase dramatically.

Your takeaway: do not hide in your bedroom while your minor children have a party. Even if you don’t provide them with alcohol, your failure to provide adequate supervision – the type of supervision a “reasonable person would exercise in the same circumstance” – you may face severe consequences.

Scenario # 2: You allow your minor child to have a party at your house. You hide in your bedroom and let the kids do as they will. It turns out they were drinking/doing drugs without your knowledge. One of the kids overindulges, overdoses, and dies.

Could you be civilly or criminally liable for letting the behavior that led to the overdose occur in your home?

Again: yes, you could. Again: scary. Again: this would fall under laws related to child abuse, negligence, and negligent supervision. The language of the law clearly states that the term neglect includes both “acts and omissions on the part of the responsible person.” Your failure to adequately supervise the party in your home could be considered an “omission,” leaving you open to liability. It’s unlikely you’d be criminally liable in the above scenario, but you would likely face a civil lawsuit.

Scenario # 3: Your seventeen-year-old drives to a party in his car. He drinks at the party and drives a group of friends home. He gets in an accident, and one of the friends – another minor – gets seriously injured, and needs lifelong care.

What is your liability as a parent?

There does not appear to be much gray area here. It’s likely you’d be liable under California statute for intentional misconduct of a minor child. As a reminder, this means you may be responsible for up to $35,000 in damages, not including pain and suffering – which, in the case of death, might mean greater financial responsibility.

Scenario # 4: Your minor child provides another minor child with illegal drugs. The other child overdoses and dies.

What could happen to your child?

In recent years, there’s been a movement among prosecutors to indict a person who provides drugs that lead to death with serious felony charges such as drug trafficking and second-degree murder. In many cases, conviction on these types of charges result in prison sentences of twenty years or more. The scenario above is a bit difficult, because prosecutors would have to prove that your child possessed and distributed the drug in question to the other child. However, these types of convictions can and do occur. Depending on the specific details of the case, your child could potentially be charged with possession of a controlled substance, possession with intent to distribute, drug trafficking, second-degree murder, or all of the above.

There are certain situations within which your child could be prosecuted as an adult, which could lead to years of prison time served with hardened adult criminals in a jail or penitentiary. Before a juvenile case is transferred to an adult court, the juvenile judge would hold a “fitness hearing,” where the judge would consider the juvenile’s history, level of criminal sophistication, potential for rehabilitation, and the severity of the case. The judge would then determine whether the juvenile should stay in the juvenile system, or transfer the case to adult court.

High Stakes and Severe Consequences 

Some people who have children embrace the cool parent identity. They allow their minor children to have parties at home. They want their kids to like them, and they want to be liked by their kid’s friends.  They may provide them with alcohol or permit drug use, often using the rationalization that if their kids are going to experiment with alcohol and drugs, they’d prefer them to do it at home rather than out in the world, where chances are greater bad things will happen. We’ll leave the armchair psychoanalysis aside and simply say what we hope most of you know: your job is to be a parent, and not a friend. Your job is to protect your children, not leave them vulnerable to danger. This is even more important when other kids are involved: as cool as you may seem to the kids, and as cool as other parents may seem, that all changes when someone dies.

The bottom line: it’s not worth it. Not even close. If your minor kids are having a party, monitor it. Every. Single. Time. Make sure no alcohol and drugs are involved. You are the responsible adult on the scene. You can be held accountable – financially, and in some cases, criminally – for acts resulting from the behavior of your minor child. If you need a maxim to guide you, use this:

“What would a reasonable, rational adult do in the same circumstance?”

This is the question a lawyer will pose a jury in a court of law, if it should ever come to that. If you can confidently assert that your decisions meet this criterion, then you can rest easy. Otherwise, you leave yourself open to both civil and criminal liability.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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