Civil Liability in Vietnam: What’s Legal?

Dear Hadrien,

Last week my 12-year-old son caused a small accident at his school. While playing football with the other kids in the schoolyard, he accidentally broke a window of one of the classrooms. Now the school is trying to claim USD450 from me and my husband as compensation for replacing the window. Are we actually liable to pay for this damage?

When looking at your son’s unfortunate accident from a legal perspective, we are talking about civil liability and, more specifically, about civil liability to compensate for so-called “non-contractual damages.” In these cases, the Civil Code of Vietnam is our starting point to learn about your rights and obligations.

The Civil Code states that anyone harming property belonging to another individual, organization or legal entity must compensate for the damage they cause. This is regardless of whether the harm was caused intentionally or unintentionally. Even though the foregoing may seem crystal clear, there are a few complicating factors in your specific case.

First of all, it was not you who caused the damage to the school’s property, it was your son. In Vietnam, anyone 18 years or older is personally liable to compensate for the damage he/she causes to others, but for minors under 15-years-old, another factor applies. According to the Civil Code, in principle the parents are liable to compensate for the damage caused by a minor. If the parents have insufficient property to compensate and the minor who has caused the damage owns property of his or her own, such property shall be used to satisfy the outstanding amount of the compensation.

Secondly, the accident happened at your son’s school. From a legal point of view, this is interesting because the Civil Code states that, as a general rule, the school must compensate for the damage caused by a minor under 15-years-old during school hours. If the school, however, proves that it was not at fault with respect to the supervision of the minor, the liability to compensate would shift back to you, as the parents of a 12-year-old.

So if you are willing to challenge the claim made by your son’s school, as a first step you could inform them about their legal liability to compensate for damages caused by your son during school hours. The school would then have to prove that they were not at fault with respect to their supervisory duties, which are normally detailed in the school regulations. To further your defense, you could also argue that the school has failed to prevent something like this from happening by allowing the children to play football in close vicinity to the windows of the classrooms. This is relevant because the Civil Code provides that where the aggrieved party itself is at fault, the person having caused the damage shall only be liable for a share of the damage in proportion to the degree to which he or she was at fault.

If you don’t want to put too much pressure on your relationship with the school, you can try to find a reasonable solution to this issue together with the school. The Civil Code explicitly allows parties to agree with each other on the amount of compensation, on the form of compensation, on the payment of compensation in installments, and on the method of compensation. Another possibility to avoid any quarrelling is to check with your insurance company first to see whether your son’s accident is covered by your liability insurance. Good luck!

A member of the Paris Bar, Hadrien Wolff has been practicing law in Vietnam for more than seven years, currently as a partner of Audier & Partners based at its HCMC office. Having gained extensive legal experience in the Netherlands and Cambodia, Marijn Sprokkereef is an associate at the Hanoi office of the same firm. Audier & Partners is an international law firm with presence in Vietnam, Myanmar and Mongolia, providing advice to foreign investors on a broad range of legal issues.

Every month, Hadrien and Marijn answer legal questions from Oi readers. If you have any legal questions you want answered, send them to [email protected] oivietnam.com.

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