At common law, the husband was liable for the torts of his wife, not because she was considered an agent but because she was considered to be an extension of him. “Husband and wife were only one person in law,” 1 says Holmes, and any act of the wife was supposed to have been done at the husband’s direction (to which Mr. Dickens’s Mr. Bumble responded, in the memorable line, “If the law supposes that, the law is a ass—a idiot” 2 ). This ancient view has been abrogated by statute or by court ruling in all the states, so that now a wife is solely responsible for her own torts unless she in fact serves as her husband’s agent.
Unlike wives, children are not presumed at common law to be agents or extensions of the father so that normally parents are not vicariously liable for their children’s torts. However, they can be held liable for failing to control children known to be dangerous.
Most states have statutorily changed the common-law rule, making parents responsible for willful or malicious tortious acts of their children whether or not they are known to be mischief-makers. Thus the Illinois Parental Responsibility Law provides the following: “The parent or legal guardian of an unemancipated minor who resides with such parent or legal guardian is liable for actual damages for the willful or malicious acts of such minor which cause injury to a person or property.” 3 Several other states impose a monetary limit on such liability.