Personal Injury Cases Involving Children

How does the law protect children who are hurt in an accident? Who is liable when a minor causes an injury?

Updated By , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

Personal injury cases typically arise from accidents and other incidents involving adults. But what if a child is injured, or ends up causing an injury? Personal injury law assumes that children do not have the same well-formed judgment as adults do, and has fashioned special rules for compensation and liability in accidents involving children.

Injuries to Children

Accidents happen, as any parent will tell you. But certain injuries to children can result in a personal injury claim when someone else's carelessness plays a part. A school may be liability for injuries to children, for example.

Although the procedure for getting compensation for a minor—in most states, that means a person under age 18—varies somewhat from state to state, in general a child has a right to compensation for the same spectrum of damages you'd find in a personal injury claim filed by an adult. That includes payment for pain and suffering, permanent injury, emotional distress, and disability. Also, a parent usually has a separate right to be compensated for medical bills paid on behalf of a child.

Obviously, a child cannot negotiate settlement of a personal injury claim, so a parent is permitted to negotiate on behalf of the child (or the parent can hire an attorney to do so). In some states, the parent must get the approval of a judge before the child's claim can be finally settled. This process is usually short and straightforward, and involves nothing more than filling out a simple form and filing it with the court for approval.

When you settle with an insurance company on behalf of a child, the insurer can provide you with the proper form and give you instructions on where to file it. It is in the insurer's interest as well as yours to see that the settlement is properly approved so that a lawyer for the child doesn't go to court months or years later and claim that the child is entitled to more money. The form will also be available from the court clerk's office.

Accidents Caused by Children

Legal liability for accidents caused by minors is based on the same notion of care and carelessness as accidents caused by adults. But the same standards of care that are expected of an adult cannot be applied to minors. Carefulness implies an understanding of risks, and minors—particularly young children—do not understand risks the way adults do.

The law applies different standards to different age groups when deciding whether a minor is liable for causing injuries to another person. Very young children (seven years old or under) are generally not held liable for accidental injuries they cause; they are too young to understand that they have been careless. This does not mean, however, that parents or legal guardians might not be liable for their negligence in failing to control a child. (More on this below.)

Once a child is old enough to know right from wrong, the child can be held responsible for intentional injuries he or she causes. So, if one child intentionally injures another child, for example, or intentionally throws a rock at a car and causes an accident, the child who commits the intentional act, and the child's parents, may be held liable.

Older children are generally held liable for negligent conduct if they did not behave carefully as measured by what other children of the same age would understand is reasonably careful. And once children become middle teenagers, they are held to pretty much the same standard as adults. When driving a car, a minor is held to exactly the same standards as adults.

Children don't normally have much money of their own, but if a minor can be held legally responsible, there are several ways for a person injured by the minor to collect compensation. First, the actions of minors are very often covered by insurance. If a minor is driving a car, either the minor's own automobile insurance or the insurance of the car owner (parent or employer) should cover the accident.

If the accident does not involve a vehicle, a homeowner's insurance or renter's insurance policy may cover the conduct of a minor who lives in the home, so the injured person may be able to deal directly with the parent's insurance company.

If you are seriously injured in an accident caused by a minor and there is no insurance covering the minor's conduct, it may be worth pursuing a personal injury lawsuit against the minor. If you obtain a legal judgment from a court stating how much the minor owes, the minor will have to pay it upon coming of age—18 years old in most states—and starting to earn money. Because this process can be long and cumbersome and is usually worth pursuing only in cases of serious injury, however, it probably requires the assistance of an attorney.

Parents' Liability for Minors' Car Accidents

Usually, a minor who is driving a car or motorcycle will be covered by either his or her own insurance or a parent's insurance policy. If the minor is not named on a parent's insurance policy, or if the car the minor is driving is owned by a parent, the parent is liable, which means that you can collect from the parent's insurance company.

If the minor is the registered owner of the car or motorcycle but has no insurance, most states make the parent responsible for damages—usually limited to between $5,000 and $25,000—caused in an accident when the minor is at fault. So, if you are involved in a car accident with a minor who has little or no insurance coverage, you may be able to file a claim against a parent and collect from one or both policies up to the limit of your damages.

More Information and Legal Help

For more tips on injury claims, and everything you'll need to navigate your case, get the book How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim by Joseph L. Matthews (Nolo). And you may want to consider talking with a personal injury attorney to make sure all your legal bases are covered and your rights are protected.

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