Are Parents Responsible for Their Minor Child’s Crimes or Accidents?

March 28, 2024
Anna E. Bullock, Susan Stone and Kristina Supler

Convictions in Michigan School Shooter Cases Reignite National Debate on Parental Responsibility

To what extent are parents liable for the criminal or tortious actions of their minor children? The answer varies state-by-state and can be highly fact-specific. The recent negligent homicide convictions against both parents of the Oxford High School shooter provide an inroad to a decades-long debate over the extent of parental responsibility.

A Closer Look at the Case

The recent criminal convictions of Jennifer Crumbley and James Crumbley, both parents of Oxford High School shooter, Ethan Crumbley, were the first of their kind in prosecutors securing convictions of parents of a school shooter for negligent homicide. The cases centered around the foreseeability of the crime and the ability (and failure) of Mr. and Mrs. Crumbley to step in and prevent the attack. The cases against the Crumbleys centered on the November 30, 2021, shooting in Oxford, Michigan, during which the Crumbleys’ 15-year-old son, Ethan Crumbley, opened fire at his high school, resulting in four deaths and seven injuries.

The Evidence

The evidence later demonstrated that Ethan Crumbley had planned the shooting well in advance of the incident. Prosecutors in the negligent homicide actions centered on the warning signs that were available to Mr. and Mrs. Crumbley. For example, four days before the shooting, the Crumbleys gave Ethan Crumley the gun later used in the shooting as a “Christmas present,” despite a state law preventing a 15-year-old  from owning such a weapon. The morning of the shooting, the Crumbleys were urgently called to the school due to reports that Ethan Crumbley had scribbled a note including images of a gun, a person who had been shot, and a “laughing emoji.” The words of the note read “blood everywhere,” and, “[t]he thoughts won’t stop. Help me.” School officials informed the Crumbleys that Ethan Crumbley was required to enroll in counseling. The Crumbleys also ignored the school counselor who recommended that he be taken home for the day. However, according to testimony at Mr. Crumbley’s trial, the Crumbleys resisted removing Ethan Crumbley from school that day and they did not inform school officials of Ethan Crumbley’s access to a weapon.

The Charges

In the aftermath of the shooting, prosecutors pursued unprecedented charges against the Crumbleys for negligent homicide, alleging that their negligent supervision and storage of firearms contributed to the incident. During the trials, evidence against Mrs. Crumbley showed that she ignored text messages from her son detailing hallucinations and paranoia in the weeks before the shooting and texted her son urging him to “learn not to get caught” searching for ammunition on school computers. Mrs. Crumbley also escorted her son to a shooting range for target practice on at least one occasion. Mr. Crumbley’s prosecution focused on his failure to secure the gun that was used in the shooting, giving Ethan Crumbley the means to carry out his rampage.

Parental Responsibility

The case has renewed complex legal questions about the extent of parental responsibility for preventing foreseeable harm caused by children as well as parents’ responsibilities to restrict minor children’s access to weapons. The Michigan cases underscore the intersection of parental liability laws and laws governing the storage and use of firearms as well as mental health issues. The case highlights the importance of safe gun storage practices and parental oversight in preventing gun-related tragedies. While Michigan does not have specific parental liability statutes for firearm misuse by minors, prosecutors relied on existing criminal negligence principles to hold the parents accountable for their alleged failure to secure the firearms and address their son’s behavior. The shooter demonstrated mental health issues and hearing voices, which prosecutors emphasized as evidence of the parents’ negligence in protecting others from the potential harm their son posed at school.

Across the United States, the legal landscape of parental liability for children’s criminal or tortious conduct varies significantly. While some jurisdictions impose strict liability on parents for acts committed by their children, others have created more nuanced standards, considering factors such as the extent of parental control, the foreseeability of the risks posed by the child, and the age and maturity of the child. The tragic school shooting in Michigan has once again brought this issue to the forefront of public attention.

Understanding Parental Liability for Minor Children’s Actions

Parental liability refers to the legal obligation of parents to pay for harm caused by their minor children’s negligent or intentional actions. In some contexts, parents are expected to be accountable for their minor children’s misconduct when parents have a duty to supervise and control their children’s behavior. However, the attachment and extent of parental liability differs significantly across jurisdictions, reflecting diverse legal principles and policy considerations.

In the United States, parental liability laws generally fall into three broad categories: strict liability, negligence-based liability, or limited liability. Most states have some sort of parental responsibility law that holds parents or legal guardians responsible for property damage, personal injury, theft, shoplifting, and/or vandalism resulting from intentional or willful acts of their dependent children. In most states, parents may be held liable where they have a duty to prevent children with known, dangerous propensities from committing foreseeable acts and causing harm to others.

Strict Liability

Some states impose strict liability on parents for their children’s tortious conduct, holding them automatically responsible for any harm caused by children regardless of whether they had the ability to intervene and prevent the harm. In other words, under strict liability regimes, parents may be held liable for their children’s actions regardless of their level of supervision or control over their children at the time of the occurrence. Strict liability laws are grounded in the belief that parents should bear the consequences of their children’s misconduct, regardless of fault. States such as California and New York have passed strict parental liability statutes, requiring parents to shoulder the responsibility to pay for any willful or accidental act of damage to persons or property committed by their children.

Negligence-Based Liability

Other states follow a negligence-based approach to parental liability, whereby parents can be held accountable only if they fail to exercise “reasonable care” in supervising and controlling their children. By definition, negligence-based liability requires that the parents incurred a “duty” to intervene and stop their child from harming another person. In these jurisdictions, courts assess the actions of parents that demonstrate that they affirmatively took responsibility for their child’s actions. Negligence is assessed through the lens of parents’ duty to protect the injured party from their child’s conduct and whether the harm was foreseeable and actually caused by the child’s actions. Factors such as the child’s age, maturity, and prior examples of similar conduct may also influence the determination of parental negligence. States including Texas and Florida have established negligence-based standards for parental liability, requiring proof of parental misconduct or omission (i.e. that the parents did something wrong or failed to do something) before requiring parents to pay for damages caused by their minor children.

Limited Liability

In some states, including Ohio, statutes or case law explicitly limit parents’ liability for their children’s tortious conduct. Limited liability may be in the form of setting a set “ceiling” on the dollar amount for which a parent may be liable for a child’s actions, or limiting the circumstances in which liability may attach. For example, some jurisdictions require proof that the parents provided a dangerous instrument to a child before the parents may be held liable for damage caused by the child. These “limited liability” jurisdictions tend to prioritize individual autonomy and parental discretion in managing and raising children, limiting the scope of parental responsibility in tort cases. States such as Nevada and Colorado have adopted laws that shield parents from significant liability absent evidence of direct parental involvement or contribution to the harm caused by their children. Ohio limits parental liability for minor children’s intentional tortious or criminal actions to $10,000 per occurrence, plus the costs of suit.

Navigating a Complex Legal Landscape

State-by-state variations in parental liability laws reflect diverse legal philosophies and policy considerations, including accountability, deterring future tragedies, and protecting parental autonomy and discretion. While some jurisdictions impose strict liability or negligence-based standards, others limit parental liability to specific circumstances or limit the amount of money recoverable against parents for their children’s actions.

The recent Michigan school shooting convictions serve as a poignant reminder of the complex interplay between parental responsibility, firearm laws, and mental health which may give rise to a duty to intervene and prevent harm caused by minors. As legal scholars and policymakers continue to grapple with these issues, the scope and limits of parental liability remain uncertain. Skilled legal advice for all involved is critical when a child has committed a crime or caused an accident.

If you or your child has been injured by another child’s negligent or intentional actions, KJK’s attorneys are here to help. For assistance, please contact our Student & Athlete Defense attorneys Anna Bullock (; 216.736.7223), Susan Stone at; 216.736.7220, or Kristina Supler at; 216.736.7217.