Published 15 October 2021, The Daily Tribune

It has been said that the greatest gifts a parent can give to their children are the roots of responsibility and the wings of independence. But where do responsibility and independence blur the lines when it comes to the legal responsibilities of a minor child?

Article 2176 of the Civil Code provides that whoever by act or omission causes damage to another, there being fault or negligence, is obliged to pay for the damage done. The concept of vicarious liability is of paramount consideration here. The law makes the obligation to pay damages under Article 2176 is demandable not only for one’s own acts or omissions, but also for those of persons for whom one is responsible.

Article 2180 of the Civil Code imposes civil liability upon the father and, in case of his death or incapacity, the mother, for any damages that may be caused by a minor child who lives with them. Hence, parents are liable for the acts or omissions of their minor child living in their company, but the responsibility shall cease when the father or the mother is able to prove that they observed all the diligence of a good father of a family to prevent damage.

This “parental liability” can be easily understood as the natural or logical consequence of the duties and responsibilities of parents — their parental authority — which includes the instructing, controlling and disciplining of the child. In this sense, parental liability can be viewed as a sub-classification of vicarious liability subject of Article 2180 above.

But what happens if parental authority is no longer lodged in the parents living with the child — who then bears the responsibility?

The nuances of the law and this burning question were addressed in Tamargo vs Court of Appeals (G.R. 85044, 3 June 1992), where the court had the opportunity to clarify the effects of parental liability accorded by an adoption decree, vis-à-vis actual custody and the issue of control or supervision of the minor offender.

The court found that the natural son of private respondents with an air rifle occurred when parental authority was still lodged in private respondents as the natural parents. The complication in that case was the issuance of a decree of adoption in favor of the Rapisura spouses, vesting the parental authority over said minor child to the latter. The decree was issued before the shooting, but a time when the trial custody period either had not yet begun or bad already been completed at the time of the air rifle shooting.

Hence, while the Rapisura spouses had been issued the adopted decree, the natural parents cannot invoke freedom from responsibility on the premise they had become free of any parental responsibility for the minor’s allegedly tortious conduct. Parental authority was not properly regarded as having been retroactively transferred to and vested in the adopting parents, the Rapisura spouses, because the adopting parents had no actual or physical custody over the adopted child. The natural parents were still living with the minor at the time. Hence, the adoptive parents could not have foreseen and could not have prevented (since they had no physical custody over the child) the incident.

Hence, the paramount consideration is not just the legal concept of parental authority but rather whether the minor adoptee was in fact under the control of the adoptive parents at the time the tort was committed. While it is well-established that parental liability for the torts of their minor children living with them is based upon the parental authority vested by the Civil Code upon such parents, the civil law assumes that when an unemancipated child living with its parents commits a tortious act, the parents were negligent in the performance of their legal and natural duty closely to supervise the child who is in their custody and control.

After all, parental liability is anchored upon parental authority coupled with presumed parental dereliction in the discharge of the duties accompanying such authority.

So parents, beware, responsibility does not end with rearing a responsible, dutiful and upstanding citizen. This extends to potential civil liability for any tort committed by one’s child for whom one is responsible, both morally and legally.

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