Matthew T. Mangino: Parental liability: On the hook for a child’s conduct
Tiffany Dickson, the widow of Cpl. Bryon Dickson — a 38-year-old Marine veteran and Pennsylvania State Trooper killed in the line of duty — is suing the parents of Eric Frein.
Cpl. Dickson and Trooper Alex Douglas were ambushed by Frein in September 2014. Douglas survived and is permanently disabled.
Frein’s case generated international attention when he eluded capture for 48 days while hiding in the mountains of northeast Pennsylvania. During that time it was estimated that the manhunt, that involved about 1,000 police officers a day from three states, cost approximately $1.4 million per week.
In April, Frein was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death.
Dickson’s lawsuit was filed in Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania last week. The complaint alleges the Frein’s parents, Eugene and Deborah Frein, not only missed warning signs about their son’s troubles but fueled the very anti-government beliefs that drove Frein to murder.
The suit contends the Freins manipulated their son into “developing a strong dislike for police and acting on that dislike.”
According to The Associated Press, the lawsuit suggests that Michael Frein had a long career in the military, taught his son how to shoot, and that Eric had easy access to weapons in the house, including the rifle used to shoot Dickson and Douglas.
Eric Frein was an adult at the time of the murder. History is replete with examples of parents not being responsible for the conduct of their adult children. As far back as biblical times parents could sever their ties with adult children in dramatic ways. The Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy provides a provocative glance back in time. “This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.” Then, “all the men of his city shall stone him with stones.”
That may be extreme, but should it be a crime to raise a criminal? Or as in Frein’s case, should his parents be financially responsible for his conduct?
Parental liability is the term used to refer to a parent’s obligation to pay for damage caused by negligent, intentional, or criminal acts committed by the parent’s child. State legislators have focused their efforts on liability for the parents of minor children. Statutorily parent liability ends when a child reaches age 18.
Children’s offenses can be civil or criminal in nature. Civil cases are lawsuits, like Dickson’s, brought by a person for money damages. Criminal cases are brought by the government for violations of a specific criminal statute.
Every state has some sort of parental responsibility law that holds parents or legal guardians responsible for property damage, personal injury, theft, shoplifting and vandalism to name a few, resulting from intentional or willful conduct of minor children.
For instance, Oklahoma limits parental responsibility of minor children to vandalism only. In other states — Michigan, Maine, Alabama and Pennsylvania — the legislature capped property damage liability for parents at a few thousand dollars. In Hawaii, Louisiana, New Hampshire and Wisconsin parents are on the hook for the entire cost of property damage.
Laws making parents criminally responsible for the delinquent acts of their children have gained steam in recent years. Most states have laws against contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Those laws may apply to any adult not just a parent.
Parents have been held criminally responsible for a child who is chronically truant from school. More than half of the states and the District of Columbia have child firearm access prevention laws that make it illegal for a parent to leave a firearm within reach of a child.
In California, Civil Code Section 1714.1 provides that parents are held jointly liable with their minor child for acts of willful misconduct on the Internet that result in death, personal injury, or property damage.
When and where does parental responsibility end? Dickson’s lawsuit may help answer those questions.
— Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.