Child Negligence: When a Hug Can Go Terribly Wrong

In 2011, Jennifer Connell attended the birthday party of her eight-year-old nephew Sean Tarala.1)Read more about the facts here. Ms. Connell broke her wrist and sued, but she lost. The break of her wrist was the boy’s fault and not hers.

If a person unintentionally hurts another person, we usually expect the person who caused the harm to be responsible, even if the harm is the result of an enthusiastic hug.  But what if the person causing the harm in the process of giving a hug is just an excited eight-year-old child?  Should the child’s parent or guardian be required to pay?  And how does a person’s homeowners insurance play into the equation?

It may be helpful to discuss some scenarios that have some similarities with each other when analyzing these questions, the first of which is nearly identical to Ms. Connell’s case.  They are as follows:

 

3 Child Negligence Scenarios

Scenario one: 8 year-old Sean Imahugger, while playing in the street near his parents’ home where he lives, sees his aunt arrive.  He runs to greet her because she has come for his birthday party.  He then enthusiastically jumps into the air to hug her while shouting “Auntie I love you!” They both fall to the ground, but auntie breaks her wrist in the fall. Sean did not consider that they might fall prior to the hug. She incurs medical bills and, as a result of the incident, her wrist is forever weakened, and it is now less flexible, which makes her daily routine at work typing on her computer more difficult.

Scenario two: Four year little-league veteran Jeff ImaGoodAllAmericanKid, who is also 8 years old, was playing baseball in the narrow street near his parents’ home where he lives. While at bat, he sees neighbor 3 year-old Frankie IopenFrontDoors wandering on the sidewalk across the street.  Jeff thinks2)if he considers the possibility at all that it is very unlikely that his baseball would hit Frankie. Sadly, the probabilities are in neither boys’ favor on this day. Jeff makes contact with the ball with his bat and the ball hits Frankie in the head, which knocks him unconscious and causes him to fall and break his arm. He incurs medical bills, reverts to needing diapers again, suffers nightmares and has a daily fear that he will be hit by falling objects when he is outside.

Scenario three: Without his parents’ knowledge, 8 year-old adventurer Dennis ImaMenace comes home from school and takes the keys to his parents’ old car from the junk drawer and drives the car on a joy-ride down the street. He knows about driving because he drives ATVs on his grandpa’s farm, and his Dad lets him sit on Dad’s lap to help steer the old car while Dad drives on the dirt roads. Unfortunately, Dennis does not make the turn of the end of his street and crashes into a neighbor’s home. Sadly, the neighbor’s mixed-breed dog was killed in the incident. The property damage totaled $25,000, including the cost of a replacement dog with all shots from the local pound.

 

The Child’s Negligence Caused Harm in All Three Scenarios, Now What?

In all three scenarios, a child did something that resulted in unintended actions or consequences, which are commonly referred to as accidents3)Or a ‘tort’ in legalese.  In each, the results were costly to someone else.  Someone must pay the price because the child certainly cannot, at least not in full.  The persons who will most likely pay the cost of these damages will either be the persons hurt or the child’s parent or guardian (I am just going to say “parent” from here on), whether or not the parents have some form of insurance.

Negligent acts are unintentional4)Although this term is unnecessary, added for clarity accidents for which the law states that someone should be financially responsible. The above scenarios involve actions that would most likely be negligent acts on the part of the child; however, children cannot be sued directly and children do not usually have funds or insurance to pay claims or judgments.

In most states, there are laws that make a parent legally responsible for the negligent acts of their children.  However, the parent must have failed in their duties to supervise their children in the standard and customary manner for the area in order for the parent to be responsible for the negligent acts of the children.  This is called negligent supervision. Laws regarding negligent supervision by a parent is sometimes more specific when automobiles are involved.

An analysis of whether a parent should be liable for negligent supervision usually requires knowledge about the type of activity that the child in which the job was engaged, analysis of the parent prior knowledge of that child, including their abilities and personality, and knowledge about the parent such as where they were when the accident occurred versus where s/he should have been.

 

Now that We Understand Child Negligence, Let Us Look at Those Scenarios Once More

In scenario one, Sean Imahugger was probably negligent in his overenthusiastic hug, but should his parents be responsible for the injuries to Sean’s aunt? Sean’s parent was probably home because it was his birthday. Unless Sean had a history of being too physically aggressive, including with his affection, his parent likely had no prior notice that he would run up to and hug Sean’s aunt with such enthusiasm that they would both fall over.  Thus, it is not unreasonable that a jury found that Sean’s parents should not be responsible for the injuries to Sean’s aunt.

The result in scenario one is probably the least fair because Sean’s aunt certainly did not cause for own injuries, yet she is the person least likely among the persons harmed in these scenarios to be compensated for her damages. She is reasonable for wanting someone else to pay for her injuries5)If you disagree, put yourself in her shoes. It is a difficult situation.  Unfortunately, these are one of those accidents for which the law does not provide a remedy for the person who is harmed.

In scenario two, we know a little more about what Jeff ImaGoodAllAmericanKid’s parent likely knows about Jeff and the location of the incident.  His parent had to sign him up and take him to little league baseball for four years.  Thus, Jeff’s parents should know that Jeff has some abilities in hitting a baseball.  We also know that Jeff and his parents live on a narrow street and that baseballs are hard objects that can cause damage to other people and property.  This type of claim may be a toss-up in front of a jury, who may find that the parents should have ensured that Jeff played baseball on the nearby field instead of on his neighborhood street.

In scenario three, the parents likely knew that Dennis ImaMenace drove ATV’s on grandpa’s farm, and Dad was teaching Dennis to drive the old car.  The keys were apparently kept in a location were Dennis could find and get them.  Did his parents know he was adventurous on other occasions that would suggest that he would do something like this? The results of this type of a claim would be less likely in favor of the parents of Dennis; however, a jury may still find that these facts are not sufficient to show that one of his parents should have known that he would drive the car on his own.

 

Homeowner’s Insurance and Child Negligence

If one of the harmed persons in the above scenarios expected payment from the parent for their damages, and the parent purchased homeowner’s insurance, the next questions are whether the insurance would defend the claim and pay if the parent is found liable.

In most homeowner’s insurance policies, if a family member who is living at the home causes another person to be injured, the homeowners insurance will provide coverage and defend against such claims.  Insurance policies have many exclusions and fine print, including against car accidents and intentional acts that cause harm.  In all of the above three scenarios, a homeowner’s insurance would be expected to defend against claims made arising out of the scenarios.  The homeowner’s insurance would only be expected to pay the harmed parties if a jury or judge decides against the homeowner or the insurance chooses to settle to avoid going to trial.

It is important to note that every situation is unique as even small facts can turn a claim/case from bad to good or vice versa. The value of a good personal injury attorney is that s/he will be able to assess the facts of a specific scenario to determine the likelihood of recovery.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Read more about the facts here.
2. if he considers the possibility at all
3. Or a ‘tort’ in legalese
4. Although this term is unnecessary, added for clarity
5. If you disagree, put yourself in her shoes. It is a difficult situation
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