New Mexico Liability of a Parent for Their Child
As an Albuquerque family law attorney I am often asked by parents whether or not they can be held legally liable for the actions of their children. Quite simply (parents take a deep breath), parents are responsible both legally and financially for any damages caused by their children. That been said, the potential liability is usually, though not always, limited.
The New Mexico Children’s Code limits parent’s liability for the damage caused by their children to $4,000. The key to connecting the statute to parental liability is the establishment of malicious or willful action on the part of the minor. Said another way, even in the worst-case scenario a parent will not be made to pay more than $4,000 in penalties. The statute itself makes no mention of liability for a child’s negligence but general consensus is that it is subsumed by the categories malicious willful action. It would defy logic if a parent were to be held responsible for the accidental damages or injuries caused by their child. The liability limitation that the statute provides will not apply in all circumstances or cases. A basic example is if the parent knows of their child’s dangerous or reckless behavior and makes no attempt to alter or prevent it. The law will see fit to hold in that parent responsible. The key distinction here is that the law is still not holding the parent responsible for the actions of their child, but rather for their inaction in preventing an unreasonable risk.
On the surface, most people would agree that parents ought to take responsibility for the harm their children cause. However, one fairly common scenario where parents are generally held liable is in negligently entrusting a vehicle to a minor. A New Mexico Jury typically holds parents liable for permitting their children access to an automobile when the either knew or reasonably should have known that their child “was likely to use the vehicle in such a manor as to create an unreasonable risk to others”. Naturally, the plaintiff would have to prove that the child in question behaved negligently and such negligence was either the proximate or direct cause of harm to another. Again, the personal injury attorney representing the plaintiff would have to prove that both the child driver was negligent and that a reasonable parent would have expected their child to drive negligently. A well-prepared plaintiff would then proceed to demonstrate the poor driving record and other dangerous driving habits that the child may also have. Because we’re dealing with cars and teenagers, a good clean driving history is so rare; it’s almost a myth.
The parent’s car insurance company and legal council would normally handle these types of lawsuits. The insurance company’s lawyers would likely attempt to downplay evidence of recklessness or the significance of previous speeding tickets and other citations. While at the same time attempt the highlight any positive, habits, or other characteristics of the minor driver. In rare cases the damages caused by the child might exceed the insurance policy coverage limits, which would increase potential liability for the parent drastically. Practically speaking, most parents carrying only nominal liability insurance protection are more likely to be judgment proof, but that is a discussion for another article.
If you find yourself having been injured by the negligent, willful or malicious conduct of a minor, it is not safe for you to presume that the parents of that minor will be forced to compensate you. The minor-auto accident example discussed above truly is the exception, as opposed to the rule, when it comes to parental liability for the negligent acts of their children. Furthermore, even in this very particular exception, responsibility and compensation is generally dictated by the insurance company. If you are the unfortunate parent of a minor child who has injured someone else or who has caused damage to the property of another, the mistakes of your child will not lead you to financial ruin. Regardless of which category of parent you fall under, you should seek the council of an experienced New Mexico lawyer. These cases are wrought with intricacies, and the value provided by your attorney’s expertise will be immeasurable.