Holding Minors Responsible for Personal Injuries

Holding Minors Responsible for Personal InjuriesWe recently discussed the relationship between negligence and reasonableness. Negligence is often defined by what a reasonable person in the same or similar situation would or would not do. We look to community standards and human experience to make this determination.

But what happens when the person that causes an accident is a minor? What standard is used then? Surely, it would be unfair to compare a minor’s actions with an adult’s to see if the action is reasonable. We could compare a minor’s behavior with the actions of other similarly aged children. But the inherent problem is that kids age and mature differently. There is no standard of how a reasonable 3, 7, 10, or 15 year old would behave.

Cases Involving Minors

Most cases that deal with the negligence of minors do not have to do with minors injuring others. Rather, they relate to situations where a minor is injured, but the defense contends that the minor’s own actions were negligent, thus contributing to, or becoming the cause of, the injury. In these cases, the reasonableness of a minor’s actions are crucial.

In a leading case on the issue, Walt Disney World v. Goode, a child drowned in a moat in Disney World. The child had become separated from his parents, wandered about, and drowned. The parents sued Disney contending that the moat should have had a guard railing or other feature to keep kids away from the water.

Disney contended that although there was no such gate, it was the child and his parents that were at fault, for allowing the child to get lost and wander unattended.

The Court refused to find the child or his parents liable, realizing that it is completely reasonable to expect that a four year old child may get loose from parents, and may wander. This is especially true in an amusement park. Because the child’s behavior was completely foreseeable, as was the possibility of the child getting lost, the child and his family were not held to be at fault for the death.

The Age of the Child Matters

Florida law provides that children under the age of six cannot by law be negligent. This means they can not be sued for being negligent, and if they are injured, a defendant can not allege they contributed to their injuries by being negligent. This derives from criminal laws which state that a child under the age of seven can’t be responsible for committing a crime.

The rule is not one of mercy, but rather capacity—the minds of children so young are underdeveloped, and not capable of acting reasonably, or making common sense decisions.

Remember though, as was discussed in the Disney case, this does not mean a child’s parents can not be held liable for the child’s injuries, or for injuries caused by the child to another.

For example, if one child accidentally injures another on a school playground, the issue will not be whether the child is negligent. Rather, the question would likely be whether the school had adequate supervision of the kids such that the accident would not have happened if proper supervision was provided. Analysis of the child to supervisor ratio would be used to make that determination.

The same rule applies when the child is the injured party. Although a Defendant could not say a young child was negligent and thus responsible for his own injuries, the Defendant could apportion liability on the child’s parents.

For example, if a young child were to carelessly run into a street and be hit by a car, the driver could not allege the child was negligent as a defense. However, the driver could allege that the child’s parents, by allowing the child to roam free and into the road, were comparatively negligent. The parent’s negligence could reduce the total award given to the child by a jury.

Older Children

When children are over the age of six, the issues become much more difficult. Juries can consider the child’s maturity and intelligence levels in determining negligence. A jury will ask whether the child appreciated the effects of his own actions, and whether the child’s behavior was reasonable as compared with other kids that have the same intelligence training and experience.

Note that this not the same as a “reasonable person” standard. Nor is the child’s behavior just compared to other similarly aged kids (although age is a factor that is considered). Rather, the child’s behavior is compared to others that are almost identical to them in experience.

Take for example a 10-year old child who playfully pushes another child into a pool, injuring the other child. A child of 10 may or may not appreciate the dangers of this action. If the child is an A student, considered to be very mature, and has experience around water, the behavior may be unreasonable. But a child that is less mature and who may never have been around water may not understand why such play is dangerous.

Likewise, from a defensive posture, a defendant seeking to show a child contributed to her own injuries, will have the burden of showing that the child had the maturity to appreciate the consequences of her actions. This will often involve discovery into the child’s lifestyle, education, grades, and medical history.

Aside from the legalities, many jurors will not look kindly upon defendants that seek to criticize and point the finger at a younger child. Thus, even attempting that defense can be problematic for those trying to avoid liability.

Injuries to and caused by children can be traumatic and difficult. Make sure your attorneys understand the legal analysis and potential defenses that may be used against you. Call the injury attorneys of Brill & Rinaldi today for a free consultation to discuss your case.