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?
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.
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.