Family Health Legal Library

Children at College Issues

Parental Liability For Injuries Caused By Their College Students

When children go away to college, but are still at least partially supported by their parents, some tricky issues arise. It is no longer clear that parents are fully responsible for their children's actions when they no longer live under the same roof. When the student is also working to support himself or herself, or is on full scholarship, and therefore not really dependent on parental assistance, these issues can become very cloudy. One of the most serious questions is in regards to insurance coverage.

Whether parents who have children as students away at college are liable for the injuries caused by these children is one of the most frequently asked questions of our Plan Attorneys.

Often, the types of injuries and the manner in which these injuries have been inflicted is a determining factor. At one end of the spectrum, the argument can be made that your child is over 18 and hence, an adult, and no liability should accrue to the parents. At the other end, there are clearly some times when a child is still dependent and "under the care" of the parents and they may still be, in some cases, legally responsible for the acts of the child. State laws also play a part in determining when a child is liable. The following is general information, but cannot be relied upon in every instance as a guide to your actions. If you are faced with this situation, you must determine, usually in consultation with an attorney, what your responsibility and liability is for each separate situation.

Generally, your liability depends upon what harm your student may have committed; that is, whether it was an intentional act or whether it was an accident or negligent in nature. Because intentionally harming a person is often considered a crime, it is not the subject of this discussion. Suffice it to say that if your student-child injures a person intentionally, a lawyer for the student may be required, and that lawyer may be able to advise as to your liability.

If your student-child is charged with injuring someone by accident, you should understand certain concepts of general principles of law which may act to render you liable, or free you from liability, for such acts. You, along with your student-child, may be sued for the damages resulting from injuries caused in such acts.

Presumably, to avoid personal liability for your student-child, you ought to make certain that your child is covered under an automobile insurance policy. Whether it is required will be determined by state law, but it should be one of your top priorities. Make certain that your student-child is covered, or they may commence their career in the world after college facing the prospect of paying a judgment as part of their first paychecks.

How can this happen? Here's how: let's assume your child, who is age 22, is away at college. While driving, a red light is run, a car is hit and a passenger in the other car is seriously injured. If your child has no insurance, leaving aside the penalty for violating state insurance laws, the child will likely be sued for damages. If the liability and damage issues are clear and the fault lies with your child, a judgment can be obtained through the court process against your child for the injuries, hospitalization and future medical expenses as well as other damages. [Some states have no-fault insurance statutes and the process may work a bit differently.] Assuming a judgment is obtained, the person can pursue recovery on the judgment for many years in attempts to recover money from your student-child for the damages he/she caused.

However, what if you do have insurance? Assuming the child is covered under the policy, you might be sued along with your child, and your insurance company would pay the damages. This would save the child from starting his/her post-college career facing the prospect of paying off a judgment. Assuming the amount of insurance coverage is adequate to cover the amount of the damages, the insurance company would pay and the case would typically be over.

What if the student-child is not covered under your policy, because you did not want to pay extra and you felt the child, if he/she was going to have a car, should also have to pay the expenses, including insurance, for the car. The problem arises when you might receive a lawsuit naming you as a defendant in the child's case and claiming you are responsible for payment of damages.

Now you must fight with your insurance company to pay the bills and any judgment. Typically, the insurance policy is clear. Either your children are covered or they are not. But often times it is not clear. You cannot ignore this lawsuit, so you must now respond by hiring a lawyer and fighting any liability you may have for injuries caused by your student-child.

What does your liability center upon? Each state has laws and cases which answer this question. Lawyers can help you understand the prospects of winning such a lawsuit based on your facts. As a general rule, the child's independence will have some bearing on your liability. If your student-child is married, has a child of his own, his spouse works and in general is completely self-supporting, even though he is a student, it is likely [not guaranteed] that you will not be liable. But you can dream up a number of facts that are not so clear, that may give rise to liability.

An easy, albeit somewhat costly, alternative of prevention is to make sure that if there are any questions about your support of your student-child, that your insurance policy covers them for any accidents in their vehicles. In the alternative, make sure that they have insurance to cover their vehicle.

There is often a question of how much insurance is enough. This is a personal question, but should always be enough to ensure that you will not lose your assets. If there is any question about whether you are actually supporting your student-child, the amounts of each should be adequate to cover your losses [i.e., the value of your estate], not the child's estate.

Again, this is an area where you should consult your attorney for help, both before and if the issue arises.

What if your student-child causes an injury to another person, not related to a motor vehicle accident, but where such injury is still an accident. What is your liability?

A similar analysis of the negligence principles as those set forth under motor vehicle accidents may apply. However, a significant difference is that many people are not protected by an insurance policy. As a general rule, many homeowners are protected from personal liability for the non-vehicle accidents which they may cause through an insurance policy known as homeowner's insurance. Homeowner's insurance protects you from damages which may be suffered to your house, but also many such policies protect you from general liability.

Many such policies will protect you from liability for your accidental acts, even when they may have occurred off of the premises covered or off your property. However, does such a policy shield you from the acts of your student-child?

The question depends upon at least two factors: (1) the laws in the state in which you live; and (2) the terms of your policy. To prevent problems arising from the acts of your student-child at college [or at home in the summer], one thing you can do is to discuss the availability of such coverage with your insurance agent. Make sure the agent is reputable and the company will be around for many years to come.

You can also have a preventative consultation with a Plan Attorney, if you are a member. Attorneys can discuss with you in general terms your liability under state law. They can also review certain case and statutory provisions to determine if there are any steps you might be able to take to limit your liability. Remember that if your student-child injures someone, even through an accident, and the injuries are serious, most likely a lawyer will be inquiring as to your potential liability and insurance coverage. You may have to have significant evidence that your student-child is not a dependent while away at college. Receipts, bills paid, checks written to pay bills for housing and food will all be discoverable by the other side, if you are named as a defendant in a negligence lawsuit.

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