Can a Parent Be Responsible for a Child’s Wrongful Death?

No one wants to lose a child to a personal injury accident. But the thought that a parent might be responsible for a child’s wrongful death is even worse. If a parent’s actions or negligence puts a child at risk, could he or she end up being a defendant in the family’s wrongful death case?

This is part two of a blog series considering the roles of parents in lawsuits after a child suffers a personal injury. Last time, the blog considered whether a child can sue for injury after a car crash.  Today’s post will consider whether a parent can be held responsible for his or her role in a child’s wrongful death.

Can Children Sue Their Parents for Personal Injury?

Michigan courts say “both nature and law” expect parents to care for and watch after their children. Parents are expected to supervise their children and protect them from danger. But what happens when parents fail to live up to that expectation? Can children sue their parents for personal injury?

Historically, a minor child (under age 18) could not sue his or her parents in tort law cases like personal injury or wrongful death. This was called “intra-family tort immunity”. But in 1972, the Michigan Supreme Court did away with that rule. Instead, children (or their representatives) could sue their parents unless the injury was caused by a parent exercising:

  • Reasonable authority over the child (including supervision)
  • Discretion in providing food, clothing, housing, or medical care.

This more limited rule is called “parental immunity” and is still applied today.

What Parental Immunity Means for Children Injured in Car Crashes

When parental immunity replaced intra-family tort immunity it created the possibility that a child could sometimes sue his or her parent for personal injury. Under parental immunity, the deciding factor for whether to name a parent as a defendant is what that parent was doing that caused the injury. Children still cannot sue their parents for lack of supervision. However, if a child is injured in a car crash because of negligent driving by the parent, that parent could end up being a defendant in the case.

It may seem cruel to allow a child’s personal representative to sue a parent for the death of that child. But in the case of car crashes, it really all comes down to insurance. When a parent’s negligence behind the wheel causes a child’s personal injury or wrongful death, suing that parent can give the family access to liability insurance benefits they wouldn’t otherwise receive.

When a Parent’s Duty to Supervise Can Affect Wrongful Death Awards

Parental immunity still applies to cases where a parent’s lack of supervision or parenting choices contribute to a child’s death. That means the family can’t sue the parent for his or her actions in those cases or get access to insurance that may have applied. However, a parent’s duty to supervise can still affect wrongful death awards like the one in Goodwin v Northwest Michigan Fair Ass’n.

In that case, 6-year-old Ezekiel Goodwin was killed in an auto accident when a truck backed up into him. He had been riding his bicycle unsupervised on the service road between the campgrounds and the fairgrounds controlled by Northwest Michigan Fair Association. The jury said the accident was 50% the fault of the truck driver who hit Ezekiel and 50% the fault of the fairground for allowing vehicles on the service road during the fair.

But the fair association said the jury should have also considered Ezekiel’s father’s duty to supervise his child. The Michigan Court of Appeals said parental immunity protected Goodwin from legal responsibility for his failure to supervise Ezekiel. But it also said the jury should have considered his role as a “nonparty at fault” when dividing its verdict among the responsible parties. Goodwin wouldn’t have had to pay his share of the damages, but the fair association and the truck driver also would not be required to pay more than their fair share because of parental immunity.

Unfortunately, sometimes parents cause their children’s personal injury or wrongful death. But that doesn’t automatically cut the families off from receiving insurance benefits and other compensation. At Macomb Law Group, our personal injury attorneys know when and how a parent should be included in a wrongful death lawsuit. If your child has been seriously injured in a car crash, contact Macomb Law Group and get our team working for you.


  • James Spagnuolo

    I began working in personal injury law more than 20 years ago, starting as a law clerk during my first year of law school at Wayne State University School of Law in Detroit. After passing the bar exam in 2002, I went on to become a partner at a series of law firms before opening the Macomb Law Group in 2017. [email protected] Spagnuolo James

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