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Can Parents be Held Civilly Liable for their Child’s Cyberbullying?

Posted February 25, 2015 | Cyberbullying

Parents usually have good intentions when buying their children a computer or smartphone. Today’s cyber technologies have many great benefits.

ComputerImageHowever, more and more frequently, teens and preteens are using the internet to embarrass, threaten, harass, humiliate, and target their peers.

Many parents fail to realize that they may be held personally liable if their child uses the internet to defame, bully or threaten another.

Cyber bullying comes in many forms, such as malicious online messages, harassment, sharing private photographs, posting secret information online or posting false statements in a public forum.  This article will address important legal issues regarding a parent’s civil liability with regards to cyberbullying.

Parental Liability Statutes Impose Liability for Children’s Wrongful Conduct

Most states have enacted laws which govern a parent’s liability for a minor’s wrongful acts.  The triggering acts and penalties provided under parental liability laws vary greatly from state to state.

In Pennsylvania, a parent’s civil liability is governed by 23 Pa. Code §§ 5502, 5505.  Under this statute, a parent whose child is found liable of a tortious act can be held liable for a sum up to $1,000 for injuries of one person or $2,500 for multiple losses.  California Civil Code § 1714.1 makes a parent liable for willful misconduct of a minor that results in injury or death to a person or damages the property of another.  In California, a parent’s liability for the acts of a minor in their custody and control is capped at $37,400.

Under parental liability statutes, a parent could be held liable for a minor’s wrongful use of the internet if it resulted in injury to another.  Examples include if a minor’s malicious online posts caused another to commit suicide or suffer severe emotional distress.  Under these scenarios, a parent may be liable for the minor’s tortious online actions. However, parents may also be liable for their own failure to supervise a minor and be held civilly liable for a minor’s wrongful acts.

Parent’s may be Civilly Liable for Failing to Supervise a Minor’s Internet Use

The US Supreme Court has found that parents have a fundamental right to rear their children. However, this right comes with the duty to exercise reasonable supervision and control over their children.  A parent who fails to properly supervise their minor’s computer use or negligently entrusts their child with a computer may be civilly liable for their own actions!

Long ago the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania found that a parent’s liability arises from failure to exercise the control which they have over their child.  It held that “Mere knowledge by the parents of a child’s mischievous and reckless disposition is not enough to make them liable for the torts of the child” but when a parent knows or using reasonable care should know that injury to another is a probable consequence a parent’s failure to act and restrain the child amounts to an approval of, or consent to, his acts by the parents.  See Condel v. Savo, 350 Pa. 350 (1944).

In a case of cyberbullying, a parent who fails to supervise a minor’s computer use or fails to stop their child from harassing another online risks a lawsuit against them.  Moreover, a parent that is aware of their kids cyberbullying and fails to stop it, or encourages it, may be subject to even greater penalties.  Significantly, in Pennsylvania, a parent’s personal liability for their own actions (or failure to act) is not capped by statute.  This means you may be responsible for the full amount any verdict or award against you for failure to supervise your child’s internet use.

Cyberbullying Lawyer in Philadelphia

Civil claims for cyberbullying may include causes of action such as defamation, invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence and negligent entrustment which are described below:

Defamation is the tort of damaging a person’s good reputation.  A communication is defamatory if it tends so to harm the reputation of another so to lower him in the estimation of the community or to others from associating or dealing with him.  To be liable for defamation a plaintiff must prove the defendant made a defamatory statement concerning the plaintiff, that it was published to a third person and harmed the plaintiff’s reputation.

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED) is a tort claim for intentional conduct that results in emotional distress.  To prove a claim for IIED a plaintiff must prove: a) outrageous conduct by the defendant b) the defendant intended to cause or recklessly disregarded of the probability of causing emotional distress c) the defendant’s actions resulted in actual suffering of severe or extreme emotional distress, and d) actual and proximate causation of the emotional distress by the defendant’s outrageous conduct.

Invasion of Privacy is a tort against an individual who unlawfully intrudes into anothers private matters, publicly discloses his or her private information, publicizes him in a false light or uses his name for personal gain.

Negligence is the failure to use reasonable or ordinary care.  To prove a cause of action for negligence, a plaintiff must establish that the defendant (1) owed a duty of care to the plaintiff, (2) that the defendant breached the duty of care, (3) the breach was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s damages, and (4) the plaintiff sustained an actual loss or injury.

Negligent Entrustment – Negligent Entrustment is a civil claim for negligently allowing third party to use an item.  It occurs when an actor permits another person to use a thing or to engage in an activity which is under the actor’s control, if the actor knows or should know that such person intends or is likely to use the thing or to conduct himself in the activity in such a manner as to create an unreasonable risk of harm to others.

If you are sued for a cyberbullying related claim you should not take the suit lightly.  Cyberbullying can result in serious damages and you may be held personally liable for the harm caused by your child.  Luckily, if you own a home, the claim may be covered under your homeowners insurance policy.  You may also be covered under an umbrella insurance policy.  If you are sued for one of the above listed claims you should put your insurance company on notice immediately.  Failure to do so may result in denial of coverage.

For a free and friendly no obligation consultation, call Brent Wieand, an experienced Philadelphia personal injury lawyer that works on a contingency fee at (877) 654-3887.

Brent practices throughout all of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. He is proud to serve Southeastern Pennsylvania including Berks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery counties, as well as the New Jersey areas of Pennsauken, Gloucester and Camden NJ.