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Free Speech

Minor's Slander Lawsuit Against Another Minor, Prompted by Defendant's Allegations of Rape

Are parents liable for defamation by their minor children?


An excerpt from a recently filed Complaint (which used the parties' full names, but I decided to abbreviate the names because they are minors):

A. and H. [who are currently minors] dated for a few months, from approximately March 2017 thru July 2017. A. and H. had consensual sexual contact on two occasions.

A. ended the relationship, after which H. continued to express her desire for them to continue dating but that was rebuffed by A. In February 2019, at a homeschool dance, A. first learned that H. had recently told other members of their homeschool group that A. had "raped" her. That statement and accusation is patently false and was uttered maliciously by H. with the intent of damaging A.'s reputation….

The allegation of "rape" constitutes slander per se as it falsely accuses Plaintiff of committing a crime …. Defendant H. orally published this statement knowing its falsity and made it with malice and with the intent to injure, and has injured, Plaintiff's character, personal reputation as well as done damage to Plaintiff's future career and employment opportunities.

[The second defendant] is the mother of H. and has custody and control over her daughter. As such, pursuant to California Civil Code section 1714.1, the misconduct of H. is imputed to her mother, and [the mother] is jointly and severally liable for the misconduct of H.

Therefore, in addition to general damages and injunctive relief, Plaintiff is entitled to an award of punitive damages against Defendants in an sum appropriate to punish and deter such misconduct in the future, in an amount of not less than $200,000.

Two interesting practical and legal twists:

  1. Section 1714.1 provides, in relevant part,

Any act of willful misconduct of a minor that results in injury or death to another person or in any injury to the property of another shall be imputed to the parent or guardian having custody and control of the minor for all purposes of civil damages, and the parent or guardian having custody and control shall be jointly and severally liable with the minor for any damages resulting from the willful misconduct….

[Such parental liability] shall not exceed [$45,000] for each tort of the minor, and in the case of injury to a person, imputed liability shall be further limited to medical, dental and hospital expenses incurred by the injured person, not to exceed [$45,000]….

Does this extend to libel cases? No, suggests a trial court (nonprecedential) decision, Caplin v. Harvard-Westlake School (Cal. Super. Ct. 2008). That case involved chiefly emotional distress damages rather than reputational damages, but its logic would apply here:

The damages allegations [in this case] are of a psychological and emotional nature to Plaintiffs…. Plaintiffs' attempt to analogize property damage to the [insulting internet postings on plaintiff's site] is without merit …..

Even assuming that the nature of the injuries complained of fall within the ambit of Section 1714.1, Plaintiffs' seventh cause of action would nevertheless fail, as the only damages allowed under the statute are for "medical, dental and hospital expenses …." Here, the allegations do not support a claim to recover such expenses, as the damages sought are for psychological and emotional injuries rather than for physical injuries….

I'm inclined to think that the Caplin analysis is right, and would apply fully to defamation cases. The statute contemplates holding parents liable for physical injuries that require "medical, dental and hospital expenses," not reputational injuries, and for damage to property, which generally isn't seen as covering reputation. But I don't know of any binding precedent on this point.

2. Litigants usually have to indicate their full names, but minors, especially in California, are often allowed to litigate using initials or pseudonyms—especially when there are allegations of sexual impropriety involved. Here, the plaintiff is acknowledging that there was a sexual relationship when the parties were, at most, 15; a quick search for defendant H.'s full name, coupled with the name of the city she lives in, reveals a local newspaper article that describes her as having been age 12 in January 2016, which would have made her 13 or 14 at the time of the relationship (March to July 2017). And of course defendant allegedly accused plaintiff of having raped her.

It thus seems odd that the lawsuit was filed using the parties' full names. This is especially so because A.'s name is quite unusual, he appears to be an aspiring actor (with a few bit parts in some TV shows), and a Google search for the full name now shows the docket (on the site) on the first results page. I am generally not a fan of pseudonymous litigation, but my tentative thought is that a case involving minors' sexual conduct (and possible misconduct) would have been a suitable case for that. Of course, query whether it is a sound decision at all for the plaintiff to sue, and turn an alleged slander within a group of home schoolers into something that could easily become a matter of public record even had the case been litigated pseudonymously.

In any event, this struck me as an interesting case (and a good fit with another libel-of-a-child case I blogged about last month), so I thought I'd pass it along.