Is a Parent Legally Responsible For Their Child’s Actions?
Can parents be held legally responsible for their children’s negligence? Yes. Under B.C.’s Parental Liability Act (PLA), “if a child intentionally takes, damages or destroys property of another person, a parent of the child is liable for the loss of or damage to the property experienced as a result by an owner and by a person legally entitled to possession of the property.” The maximum liability for parents is $10,000. However, a parent can defend themselves from the lawsuit by demonstrating that they were exercising reasonable supervision over the child, and that they made reasonable efforts to prevent or discourage the child from damaging someone’s property. The PLA effectively codifies the existing legal tradition (i.e. the common law). As such, this post will briefly review the common law to clarify the reason for parental liability, and it will explain this reason’s associated standard of supervision as a limiting factor to liability.
At common law, a parent cannot be held liable for damages resulting from their children’s negligent acts (i.e. their tortious conduct). In the 1860 English case of Moon v Towers the court held that “a father is not liable in damages for the torts of his child.” This principle has been applied in numerous B.C. cases. In Hatfield v. Pearson, for example, three teenaged boys stole a car which was damaged in the ensuing police chase. The owner’s claim for damages against the children’s parents failed on the principle set out in Moon v Towers. Similar dismissals have arisen in response to children’s acts of vandalism, arson, and murder. However, parents with unruly children should not take too much comfort in this knowledge, for the rule is not absolute.
Parents have a personal duty to supervise their children. When careless in this duty, a parent can be held liable for any resulting damages. There is a subtle but important difference here. The parent is not vicariously liable for their child’s negligence; rather, they are personally liable for their prior negligence in not properly supervising their child to the acceptable standard of preventing foreseeable harm to others. In the 1994 B.C. Supreme Court Case of Poirier (Guardian of) v. Cholette, for instance, parents were held liable for failing to properly supervise their two adolescent boys while they wrestled on a trampoline with friends, resulting in the breakage of a young girl’s arm. As the court wrote: “had the defendants provided proper supervision, the prohibited circumstances of three or four children indulging in horseplay and wrestling on the trampoline would not have occurred. The infant plaintiff would, on a balance of probabilities, not have fallen.” Of course, this foreseeability of harm changes with the child’s age. As the child nears the age of majority (18 years old) and expectations regarding their comportment with social standards increase, the parents’ duty to supervise will correspondingly decrease.
If the child demonstrates a propensity for the negligent behavior that eventually resulted in damage, the parents’ duty to supervise is increased. In the B.C. case of M.I.M. v. T.H., for example, a foster parent was found to have fulfilled such an elevated standard arising from his knowledge regarding his two foster children’s proclivity for stealing. But, their eventual arson attack was unforeseen, and therefore, the foster parent could not be held liable. In other words, the supervision standard is limited to what a reasonably prudent parent would do in similar circumstances.
An “error in judgment” will not amount to negligent supervision. That is, the reasonable parent standard is broad, insofar as any circumstance will afford various courses of reasonable action. Even when one of those actions has an unfortunate outcome, its mere selection will not amount to negligence. In Arnold v. Teno, for example, the Supreme Court of Canada found that a mother allowing her children to cross a residential street to purchase items from an ice cream truck was within the community standard, even though that choice later resulted in one of the children being struck by a vehicle. While an instance of poor judgment, the decision did not amount to a failure to supervise.
Taken together, parents cannot be vicariously liable for their children’s negligent acts. Yet, they may be liable for failing to supervise their children to the appropriate community or circumstantial standards. The PLA’s codification of these common law principles bridges the distinction between vicarious and parental liability. It simply makes parents liable for their children’s negligence. However, the distinction implicitly persists with the statute’s supervision defence. Also, it should be noted that the PLA maintains a $10,000 liability limit that does not exist at common law. That said, other statutes also override the Moon v. Towers principle and impose parental liability in certain circumstances. Section 10 of B.C.’s School Act, for example, imposes liability on parents for any damage their children cause to school property. There, the statue sets no upper limit on parental liability.
 Parental Liability Act, Part 2, s. 3
 Ibid., ss. 9 & 10
 Moon v. Towers (1860), 8 C.B.N.S. 611, 141 E.R. 1306; also see, The Law Reform Commission of Ireland, Report On The Liability In Tort Of Minors And The Liability Of Parents For Damage Caused By Minors Ireland, <https://www.lawreform.ie/_fileupload/Reports/rDamagecausedbyMinors.htm>
 M.I.M. v. T.H.,  5 WWR 699, 82 DLR (4th) 609, 57 BCLR (2d) 1.
 Smith v. British Columbia, 1997 CanLII 3267 (BC SC),
 D.L. et al. v. C.P. et al., 2019 MBQB 42
 Arnold v. Teno,  2 S.C.R. 287; Hatfield v. Pearson (1956), 6 D.L.R. (2d) 593 (B.C.C.A.)
 Poirier (Guardian of) v. Cholette, 1994 CanLII 1182 (BC SC)
 Lelarge v. Blackney, (1978) 92 D.L.R. (3d), 440 (N.B.C.A.) at pp. 446-7.
 M.I.M. v. T.H., 1991 CanLII 5722 (BC CA), at para 138.
 School Act, RSBC 1996, c 412, s 10; also see School District No. 43 (Coquitlam) v. T.W.D., 1999 BCCA 95