A family whose child was referred to the JRB for shoplifting an inexpensive item that was returned to the store undamaged received a letter from an attorney demanding $300 in “punitive damages.” Does the family have to pay this?The JRB can not and should not provide legal advice to families but, to better understand the issue, here is my analysis.
The legal basis for these claims seems to be CGS §52-564a that says:
"(a)Any person eighteen years of age or older or an emancipated minor who takes possession of goods or merchandise displayed or offered for sale by any mercantile establishment, or who takes from any real property any agricultural produce kept, grown or raised on the property for purposes of sale, without the consent of the owner and with the intention of converting such goods, merchandise or produce to his own use without having paid the purchase price thereof, or who alters the price indicia of such goods or merchandise, shall be liable in a civil action to the owner of the goods, merchandise or produce for (1) the actual and reasonable costs of maintaining the action, including court costs and a reasonable attorney's fee, (2) the retail value of the goods, merchandise or produce taken, if not recovered by the time of the commencement of the action or if recovered in an unmerchantable condition, and (3) punitive damages in an amount not to exceed three hundred dollars. (b) A conviction of larceny by shoplifting, as defined in subdivision (9) of section 53a-119, shall not be a condition precedent to the maintenance of a civil action under this section. (c) In any action brought pursuant to subsection (a) of this section, if the plaintiff does not prevail, the court may award to the defendant his costs, including a reasonable attorney's fee, and damages not to exceed three hundred dollars. (d) No action shall be brought pursuant to subsection (a) of this section but within two years from the date of the act complained of."
While CGS §52-564a clearly states that it applies only to a “person eighteen years of age or older or an emancipated minor," it appears that these law firms are using another statute, CGS §52-572, to hold the parent or guardian of a minor liable for such damages that the minor would not otherwise be liable. CGS §52-572 says that:
(a) The parent or parents or guardian, other than a temporary guardian appointed pursuant to section 45a-622, of any unemancipated minor or minors, which minor or minors wilfully or maliciously cause damage to any property or injury to any person, or, having taken a motor vehicle without the permission of the owner thereof, cause damage to the motor vehicle, shall be jointly and severally liable with the minor or minors for the damage or injury to an amount not exceeding five thousand dollars, if the minor or minors would have been liable for the damage or injury if they had been adults. (b) This section shall not be construed to relieve the minor or minors from personal liability for the damage or injury. (c) The liability provided for in this section shall be in addition to and not in lieu of any other liability which may exist at law. (d) As used in this section, “damage” shall include depriving the owner of his property or motor vehicle or of the use, possession or enjoyment thereof.
They seem to be relying on the definition of “damage” in subsection (d) to apply the statute to a shoplifting situation and the language in subsection (a), “if the minor or minors would have been liable for the damage or injury if they had been adults” to say that §52-564a imposes liability on the parent or guardian of the minor.
I don’t think the Legislature intended, when they enacted §52-572, to impose liability on parents or guardians for the act of shoplifting by a minor child because the Legislature specifically exempted minor children from such liability relating to a shoplifting incident when they enacted §52-564a, but I can see how these two statutes could be read in such a way to yield that result.
This issue has been referred to the Attorney General’s office for clarification and it has also been referred to the Judiciary Committee of the Legislature for possible legislative amendment. Until some action is taken by either entity, I would recommend that the families who receive the letter seek the advice of counsel to avoid any individual consequences to the family.
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