It is possible to sue a minor (someone under the age of 18) in the United States, but there are some important factors to consider. Minors have limited legal capacity and cannot be sued directly in most cases. Instead, lawsuits against minors are usually filed against their parents or legal guardians. There are exceptions in certain cases where a minor can be sued directly. This article will examine the requirements, laws, and processes involved in suing a minor in the US.
Can a Minor be Sued Directly?
In most cases, minors cannot be sued directly. This is because minors are considered to have limited legal capacity. Instead, lawsuits against minors are usually filed against their parents or legal guardians. Here are some key points on suing minors directly:
- Minors cannot be sued solely in their own name – The claim must name the minor’s parent or legal guardian as the defendant.
- There are exceptions in some states for emancipated minors, minors engaged in business, and wrongful death claims.
- If a minor is sued directly, they can assert “minority” as an affirmative defense.
- Any judgments against a minor alone are generally void or voidable.
So in most cases, the proper defendant in a lawsuit against a minor is their parent or legal guardian. However, there are some exceptions where minors can be sued directly under specific circumstances.
Requirements for Suing a Minor
When suing a minor, there are certain procedural requirements that must be followed:
- The minor must be adequately represented – This means naming the minor’s parent or appointed guardian as the defendant.
- Serving process – The complaint and summons must be properly served to the minor and their representative.
- Appointing a guardian ad litem – Many states require appointing a guardian ad litem to represent the minor’s interests.
- Following state procedural rules – States have specific rules on suing minors which must be followed.
Meeting these requirements allows the minor’s interests to be adequately protected in the lawsuit. Failing to follow these procedures can invalidate the lawsuit against the minor.
Exceptions Where a Minor Can be Sued Directly
While minors generally cannot be sued directly, there are some exceptions where a minor can be named as the defendant in a lawsuit:
- Emancipated minors – Minors who have been emancipated by a court order can be sued directly like an adult.
- Minors operating a business – If a minor is engaged in business activities, they can be sued similar to an adult business owner.
- Wrongful death claims – Some states allow minors to be sued directly for a wrongful death claim.
- Liability insurance – A minor can be sued directly if they have liability insurance that would cover the damages.
However, the plaintiff bears the burden of proving these exceptions apply if they want to sue the minor directly. Otherwise, the parents or guardian must be named as defendants.
Parents’ and Guardians’ Liability for Minors’ Actions
When a minor cannot be sued directly, parents and guardians can be liable for civil damages caused by a minor’s wrongful conduct. Here is an overview of that liability:
Parents can be liable for their minor child’s actions under two legal theories:
- Vicarious liability – Parents can be liable for acts committed by a minor child under their supervision and control.
- Statutory liability – Many states have statutes imposing liability on parents up to specified dollar amounts for a child’s intentional or malicious acts.
However, parental liability has limits. Parents are generally not liable for unauthorized acts or acts outside their control. Parental liability laws vary quite a bit by state.
Legal guardians can also be sued for acts committed by minors under their supervision. Guardians have a duty to properly supervise their wards. However, guardians may have specific statutory immunities that limit their liability in some states. The liability of other caretakers like relatives, siblings, teachers, etc. is more limited.
Damages in Lawsuits Against Minors
The potential damages that can be claimed in a lawsuit against a minor depend on:
- The cause of action – Torts, breach of contract, etc.
- State parental liability laws and liability limits
- The limits of the minor’s assets
- The extent of available insurance coverage
Compensatory damages like medical bills, property damage, lost wages, etc. may be claimed. Punitive damages are often restricted in lawsuits against minors. Overall, the available assets and insurance coverage will drive the collectability of any judgement.
Defenses in Lawsuits Against Minors
There are several legal defenses that may be raised in response to lawsuits against minors:
- Minority status – Argue the minor cannot be sued directly.
- No liability under state law – State law may not impose liability on parents/guardians for the conduct at issue.
- No supervision or control – For parental liability, argue the parents did not authorize or control the conduct.
- Contributory negligence – Argue the plaintiff’s negligence contributed to the incident and damages.
- Assumption of risk – Argue the plaintiff was aware of and assumed the risks.
Raising a strong defense can either defeat the claim or reduce the amount of damages. The facts of each case will determine what defenses may apply.
Insurance Coverage for Claims Against Minors
Liability insurance policies often provide important coverage against claims and judgments:
- Homeowners insurance – May cover claims against children who live at home.
- Auto insurance – Can cover accidents caused by minor drivers.
- Umbrella insurance – Provides additional liability coverage beyond other policies.
- Landlord insurance – For claims against minors who rent.
Applicable insurance policies should be consulted as coverage often includes legal defense for covered claims. Insurance can expand the ability to recover damages in claims against minors.
Steps in the Litigation Process
Lawsuits against minors will follow the standard litigation process with some key steps:
- Filing of the complaint – Properly naming defendants and following procedural rules.
- Serving process – Serving the complaint and summons on the minor and guardian.
- Discovery – Exchange of documents, interrogatories, depositions, etc.
- Motions and hearings – Resolving legal disputes over liability, damages, etc.
- Settlement negotiations – Discussions to resolve the case before trial.
- Trial – If no settlement is reached, proceeding to a civil trial.
- Judgment – The court issues a decision and judgment on liability and damages.
Lawsuits against minors involve unique factors, but still follow standard civil litigation procedures. Most cases will settle before reaching trial.
Enforcing Judgments Against Minors
If the plaintiff obtains a favorable judgment, collecting on that judgment involves:
- Pursuing parents/guardians – Their wages, assets may be used to satisfy the judgment.
- Claiming under insurance – Insurance proceeds can pay covered judgments.
- Waiting until majority – Judgments are more enforceable against adults and future assets.
- Settling for less – May negotiate lower payment to satisfy judgment.
Judgments against minors can be difficult to enforce. But options like insurance proceeds, negotiated settlements, and claiming assets later in adulthood can provide recovery.
State Laws on Suing Minors
Key state laws impact the requirements and process of suing minors. Here are some examples:
|California||Parents liable up to $25,000 for willful misconduct. Minors can be liable for negligent or intentional torts if they have liability insurance.|
|Florida||Parents liable up to $5,000 for willful destruction of property.|
|New York||Infancy defense generally makes contracts with minors voidable. But minors can still be liable for intentional torts.|
|Texas||Parents liable up to $25,000 plus court costs and attorney fees.|
State laws vary on issues like parental liability limits, insurance requirements, and contractual capacity of minors. Understanding the relevant state laws is crucial.
Examples of Lawsuits Against Minors
Here are some examples of typical lawsuits against minors and their parents:
- A minor causes a car accident – Parents sued for damages under vicarious liability.
- Child accidentally starts a fire – Homeowners insurance covers liability for property damage.
- Minor vandalizes property – Parents responsible up to state statutory limit.
- Child inflicts injury at school – Lawsuit against parents and school district.
- Minor breaches a contract – Contract voided but intentional torts may still lead to liability.
The most common situations leading to lawsuits involve negligent torts like accidents or intentional torts like vandalism. Contract claims are less common due to the infancy doctrine.
Lawsuits against minors must follow special rules and procedures. While minors cannot be sued directly in most cases, their parents or guardians can be pursued for liability. There are limited exceptions where minors can be named as defendants. Understanding state laws is crucial as the requirements vary widely across different jurisdictions. With proper adherence to the procedural rules and process, plaintiffs may prevail in lawsuits against minors in the right circumstances.