Parental liability: who pays?

Our neighbors' young children were running through our house and knocked over our $7,000 harp. We've priced repairs and it's going to cost $2,400 to return the harp to its original condition. Our neighbors are refusing to pay, saying it was our fault for leaving the harp in a precarious position. Do we have any legal recourse?

It's always frustrating when parents do not control their children, but the answer to whether the parents are financially responsible is not a simple one, according to attorney Cheryl Gill.

Wisconsin's parental liability for acts of minor children makes parents responsible for up to $5,000 in damages if there was willful, malicious or wanton behavior.

"A child who just ran through the house, who hasn't been warned and happens to slip and accidentally knock over the harp probably would not be considered willful, malicious or wanton," she said.

It would be a different story for a child who walked up to the harp and intentionally knocked it over. Also different would be a situation in which a child was repeatedly warned to be careful of the harp, paid no attention and the parents did nothing to stop him or her. Still, Gill said, "It's a hard line to define."

Incidentally, under common law, a parent could be liable if a minor child physically harms someone else. There is no limit on damages if the parents should have controlled the child's behavior but did not.

While parents ideally would have taken responsibility for their child's actions, many do not today. Therefore, you may need to go to Small Claims Court (the court for claims under $5,000) to force the parents to pay for the damaged harp, In Small Claims Court, claimants are encouraged to participate in mediation to resolve the claim rather than engaging in trial.

"In mediation neither side gets exactly what they want," Gill said. "But by compromising, both sides may save some money and may maintain their prior relationship."

For more information about parental liability laws, contact us 608-784-5678.

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