Can a child file a lawsuit?

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When a child is entitled to sue someone, such as a negligent physician or driver, he or she may do so through a suit brought by his or her parent or guardian. Children do not have the capacity to sue on their own. The attorney retained by the parent or guardian, while ethically obligated to protect the child’s interests, technically is counsel to the adults. When such an attorney or the involved adults think it appropriate, the court may appoint separate counsel to represent the child. This often happens if there is a dispute between the attorney and the adults regarding the best interests of the child. In other situations, the adults’ interests may potentially conflict with the child’s, such as in automobile accident cases where both the parents and the child are injured but the defendant has only limited insurance coverage that will not cover even one person’s injuries.

A person who represents a child is generally referred to as the child’s “guardian ad litem.” No one can hire independent counsel for a child. The only proper method by which a child can be represented is through the court’s appointment of an attorney to act as guardian ad litem. A guardian ad litem investigates the child’s claims, reports to the court, and acts with a particular focus on the child’s best interests.

Children regularly have appointed for them guardians ad litem in foster care proceedings and in some inheritance and contested custody cases. The court must also appoint a guardian ad litem for a child who is being sued as a defendant. A defendant child may not act on his or her own in defending the case or in hiring private counsel.

Lawsuits, including those by or on behalf of children, are subject to statutes of limitation. Generally, the statute of limitations in a personal injury case is two years. In a contract case, the statute of limitations is either five or ten years, depending on the type of contract. When the individual entitled to bring a suit is a child who remains in the care of his or her parent or custodial guardian, the statute does not begin to run until the child is 18 years old. Thus, if you were injured as a child, you may still have the right to sue until you are 20 years old–two years past your 18th birthday. Beware–certain exceptions apply. For instance, in medical malpractice cases, children have only eight years from the time of the discovery of the malpractice to bring a lawsuit, regardless of their age.