Last week, a New York judge ruled that a four-year old girl can be sued for negligence. In an accident that occurred almost two years ago, the child, Juliet Breitman , was racing a bicycle with training wheels on a Manhattan sidewalk when she struck and gravely injured 87-year-old Claire Menagh. Mrs. Menagh suffered a hip fracture that required surgery and died three weeks later of unrelated causes. The judge , Justice Paul Wooten of the State Supreme Court in Manhattan , did not find the girl liable but merely permitted a lawsuit brought against the two children and their parents to move forward.
The suit claims that in April 2009 , Julius Breitman and Jacob Kohn , who were both four years old at the time , were racing their bikes under the supervision of their mothers on the sidewalk of a building on East 52nd Street when the accident happened . The victim’s estate is suing the children and their mothers claiming that the they acted negligently and asking that they be held accountable.
The defendant’s lawyer pointed out that , in previous cases , “Courts have held that an infant under the age of 4 is conclusively presumed to be incapable of negligence.” However, Justice Wooten declined to dismiss the case because Juliet Breitman was 4 years and 9 months old at the time of the accident and therefore old enough to be sued.
Justice Wooten declined to stretch that rule to children over 4. On Oct. 1, he rejected a motion to dismiss the case because of Juliet’s age, noting that she was three months shy of turning 5 when Ms. Menagh was struck, and thus old enough to be sued. To the argument that Juliet Breitman should not be held liable because her mother was present, Justice Wooten responded that “A parent’s presence alone does not give a reasonable child carte blanche to engage in risky behavior…” and that unless the parent actually encourages the risky behavior, the child can be held liable.
I know that we are a nation of laws and I am glad of it but when I hear of decisions like this I can’t help thinking of someone’s remark that ” The law is an ass’. Too literal an application of the laws sometimes flies in the face of commonsense.In this case, the only people who will benefit from the ruling are the lawyers on both sides; they stand to make untold thousands ( tens of thousands?) as the case is tried.
Technically , the learned judge is no doubt correct in his interpretation of the law. The child was over the age of four and , in the eyes of the law , should be held accountable . However I do not think that a child who is nine months over four , is capable of understanding the consequences of her actions. Additionally, she can only be found guilty if it is proved that she acted with less prudence than other four-year olds. Good luck proving that. Even in the case of a guilty verdict , I don’t know what the plaintiffs could expect to recover from a four-year old.
I could have understood if the suit had been against the parents alone. Since , under our legal system , someone is always at fault , the parents would seem to be the logical “culprits ” though anyone who is or has been a parent knows the impossibility of controlling a four-year old all the time .
It was an unfortunate accident and the fact that the victim was 87 years old should have no bearing on the case. However I can’t help wondering what the plaintiffs are suing for. If they ware suing for the medical costs arising from the accident and have not been able to reach a settlement, then that is understandable. But , if the suit also asks for damages for ” pain and suffering ” , I am less sympathetic. How can anyone put a dollar value on ” pain and suffering ” in this case ?
It was a tragic accident and it should not have happened but it did. Why must it always be someone’s fault ?