Children and the Court System
Legal actions are generally thought to involve adults suing other adults. Lawsuits are filed daily seeking damages for people who are physically injured or suffer property damage caused by someone else. Common actions involve car accidents, medical malpractice, negligent maintenance of property, and infliction of physical injuries or damage to reputation or feelings. The legal term “tort” refers to a private or civil wrong or injury suffered by someone which constitutes an invasion of a legal right. The wrongdoer who commits a tort is called a “tortfeasor.” If the tortfeasor fails to meet a duty owed to the injured person and ascertainable damages result from that failure, liability – usually monetary – will be imposed upon the tortfeasor. However, what happens if the tortfeasor is a minor – someone under the age of 18?
Several incidents involving children and “torts” they have committed have been reported in the news: the child who entered a house under construction and broke the windows; the child who found a BB gun and shot his friend in the eye; the child who wasn’t licensed to drive, but “borrowed” his parents’ car and crashed into someone else’s car a block away. In these situations, the question arises as to who must compensate the injured person – the child who committed the act (but who as a minor may not be deemed responsible for his or her acts), or the parents, who did not commit the tortuous act but are viewed by society as responsible for the child’s actions?
Pennsylvania’s “Liability for Tortious Acts of Children” law tries to strike a balance between an injured person’s rights, a child’s misconduct, and a parent’s liability for a child’s actions. In a civil action where judgment has been rendered against a child or in a criminal proceeding against a child, the law limits the child’s parents’ monetary liability to $300 for injuries suffered by one person, or a total or $1,000 for injuries suffered regardless of the number of persons injured from one incident. Thus, you as a parent can be held financially responsible for injuries or damages caused by your child, but only to a specified limit. If a parent is found liable, the parent cannot sue the child for contribution to the amount(s) the parent must pay. There is an exception to the parental liability provision – if a parent doesn’t have custody of the child, or if the child is institutionalized or is legally emancipated, the parent has no liability for the child’s tortuous act.
In addition to an injured person, parents may find themselves liable to the County as a result of a child’s misconduct. If a child is found guilty of criminal misconduct after a hearing in Juvenile Court, and is placed in a shelter of County sponsored care, the County may sue the parents for the child’s care and maintenance, much as a custodial parent sues a noncustodial parent for child support. The County looks at the parents’ income or earning capacity, and seeks compensation if the County must provide for the child’s care and maintenance.
Children who commit crimes (“delinquent acts” under the Juvenile Court Act) and children who are neglected, abandoned or deemed lacking in proper parental care and supervision must be dealt with by the Courts. In general, law enforcement records and files for juveniles are kept separate from those of adults and are usually not open to public inspection or disclosure unless stringent requirements are met. Strict rues are set forth in the statue to keep juveniles from being placed in a police lockup with adults, to provide for notifying parents or custodians immediately when a child is detained or arrested, and in setting up informal hearings with 72 hours if a child is placed in detention or a shelter.
Allegheny County has a separate Juvenile Court, within the Family Division of the Court of Common Pleas, which handles only matters involving juveniles. The court is located at the Family Center, 440 Ross Street, Pittsburgh. Allegheny County currently has 2 full-time Juvenile Court Judges, Masters (attorneys who are appointed to hear cases on a full-time basis and render decisions), probation officers and social workers. Judges in Juvenile Court not only rule on cases involving crimes committed by children, but also handle situations where children’s rights and best interests need to be protected, such as the prior Baby Byron case. The Judges may have to decide whether certain children should be returned to their parents, or continue to be in their parents’ care and custody, or whether foster care is mandated, such as when there is clear and convincing evidence a child lacks proper are and control by a parent.
While we often view the legal system as being for adults only, it is important for parents to realize the legal system extends to children as well. The Courts are well equipped to handle disputes involving children, injuries caused and offenses committed by children – and parental liability for those offenses – and to protect the rights of dependent children or children whose welfare is endangered.