Parents of bullies can be sued

The financial and emotional consequences are potentially devastating.

As more and more horrific incidents of suicide and school violence are traced back to bullying, the focus on this problem is likely to remain intense.

We now know a lot about the psychological, academic, physical and legal risks that bullying poses to victims and bullies alike. And we also know more than ever before about the risks school districts face when they fail to adequately address bullying. But where do parents fit into all of this? What are our rights, responsibilities and risks when our child is involved in bullying?

What to do

What should parents do to protect themselves from legal liability for bullying? It’s simple. Do exactly what you would want other parents to do if their child was bullying yours. Take it seriously.

Take steps to address the problem with your child and his school.

Take the time to remind your child that bullying is a serious problem that can have legal consequences.

Monitor your child’s use of technology. It’s one of the most effective things parents can do to prevent bullying. Remember that e-mails, texts and posts on social networks such as Facebook are common weapons for bullies. They are also powerful and damning exhibits in bullying lawsuits.

By keeping a watchful eye on your child’s computer or cell phone, you not only can avoid legal liability, you can stop bullying before it leads to tragedy.

Legal action

When a child is bullied today it is far more likely that his parents will turn to the courts for help. If your child is a bully, you might very well be sued. Lawsuits by victims of bullying against school districts, school personnel and even the bullies themselves are quite common.

Increasingly, these plaintiffs are also naming the parents of the bullies as defendants. Why? Because the bully’s parents often bear some financial or legal responsibility for the harm their child

inflicted, perhaps because the parents have insurance that could cover some of these damages or, worse, because the parents themselves allowed or enabled the bullying, either intentionally or through negligence.

While the most important reason to stop your child from bullying is to protect him and the victims, the potentially devastating financial and emotional consequences of being sued is another reason to take this problem extremely seriously.


Strict liability

Sometimes parents are financially responsible for damage caused by their children “just because they are the parents.” This is called “strict liability.”

In Delaware, parents are liable for up to $5,000 for their children’s intentional or reckless damage to real or personal property. In all cases, any strict liability imposed on parents “just because they are the parents” may be imposed on top of any liability the parents might have for their own negligence in failing to reasonably control their children. See 10 Del. C. § 3922.

In New Jersey, parents are automatically responsible for damages their children cause to school property, with no limit. See N.J.S.A. § 18A:37-3.

In Pennsylvania, if a minor child (under 18) is found guilty of injuring another person, theparents are automatically liable for up to $1,000 per person injured, not to exceed $2,500 per act, regardless of how many people were injured. See 23 Pa. Code §§ 5502, 5505.

Many parents worry that they are automatically responsible for the actions of their minor children, but the truth is not that simple. Parents are usually not legally responsible  simply because they are the parents. (See the Strict Liability sidebar, for some exceptions to this rule.)

Rather, parents are most at risk legally when they know their child is a threat to others but they don’t take reasonable steps to control that behavior. In this way, liability for bullying is similar to liability for your child’s drunk driving. As you might expect, the law does not look kindly on parents who knowingly allow their children to drive drunk, let alone those who give their drunk children the keys to the car.

Similarly, if you know your child is bullying a classmate — whether physically, through text messages, social media, verbally or by any other means — you have a legal duty to take reasonable steps to stop it. If you don’t, the law will treat you as part of the cause of the harm your child has inflicted on his victim. As one court put it, parents are responsible when their negligence makes the injury possible.

Josh Kershenbaum and Dave Frankel are attorneys at Frankel & Kershenbaum, LLC in West Conshohocken, PA.

Caution, No Bully Zone is a program of the Dream, Believe, Know It Foundation that provides schools with anti-bullying speakers, curriculum and materials.  Area kids in this poster are, front row, with guitar, Maya R., 8, of Phila. and far right, Michael C., 8,  of Norristown, PA; second row, far right, Ava A., 11, of Lumberton, NJ.  


Categories: Solutions