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Howe's Brooklyn: Debate continues: Are parents acountable for injuries caused by their children?

Cynthia Godsoe, Brooklyn Law School professor. Photo courtesy Brooklyn Law School

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Walking down a Manhattan sidewalk in October 2009, Apri Koulajian was struck from behind by a wheeled suitcase and fell to the ground. Unsure of exactly who struck her, Koulajian regained her bearings and noticed a 2-year old child, the child’s parent and the suitcase. Because she was unsure of exactly who was holding the suitcase at the time, Koulajian filed a lawsuit against the child and a claim of negligent supervision against the child’s parents. 

Late last week, the Appellate Division, First Department, dismissed Koulajian’s claims against the child and parents.

In New York, parents may be found liable for the actions of their children if and when it is found that the child caused harm to another while using or operating a dangerous instrument. The appellate court found that Koulajian was unable to definitively prove who was handling the suitcase and did not have a case for negligent supervision.

Two justices disagreed. The question of parental negligent supervision hinges on whether a child was operating a dangerous instrument at the time of the accident. In this case, the question is whether or not a wheeled suitcase is a dangerous instrument. While the majority of the court said no, Justices David Saxe and Peter Tom argued, “However innocuous a wheeled suitcase might seem generally when handled by adults- when it is the same size as the two-year-old child wielding it, the potential hazards it could create may warrant imposing on the parent supervising the child a greater degree of care and supervision, to ensure that the object does not unwittingly turn into a hazardous object that may foreseeably cause harm to nearby pedestrians. Such an object, in the hands of a possibly heedless two-year-old wielding it without parental oversight on a Manhattan sidewalk, could turn into a hazard, creating ‘an unreasonable risk of harm to others.”

What about parents who keep guns, a dangerous instrument, in their homes? How far should claims of negligent supervision extend into criminal liability?  Brooklyn Law School professor Cynthia Godsoe responded to a Q&A yesterday from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle: Will having some action (civil or criminal) make more parents seek help and understanding earlier when the 'disconnect' occurs between them and their adolescent child?
CG:    I don’t think these kinds of penalties will help to reduce juvenile crime, and particularly not the kind of horrifying event that took place in Newtown. These statutes are so rarely enforced that they don’t deter behavior. And they also don’t offer any clear guidance to parents as to what the warning signs might be for juvenile crime, or how to seek help. What we really need are stricter gun control laws and better mental health services for adolescents. Parents, and others in frequent contact with young people such as teachers and doctors, should be given more information and support in order to identify and treat mentally ill youth..
Parental responsibility statutes in fact cover up the real causes of these tragedies — untreated mental illness and lax gun laws — by framing school shootings and other juvenile crime as the private failings of one family. We should all take responsibility for preventing the next one.

BDE: Is there any potential for finding more ways to hold parents accountable legally for the acts of their children.
CG: There is already a way to hold parents accountable legally for some of their children’s acts, as most states have a “parental responsibility statute” that imposes liability on parents when their children commit criminal acts or willfully or maliciously damage another’s property. But, as I noted above, I think these statutes are not very effective at preventing juvenile crime, and probably even harmful.
Parental responsibility statutes were enacted in an effort to combat juvenile crime, a few specifically in response to school shootings such as the one at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. Before these statutes were passed, i.e. at common law, a parent was usually not responsible for her child’s intentional acts, unless she had been negligent in supervising the child. Some of the parental responsibility statutes are broad, covering all kinds of damage a child causes, and others focus on specific kinds of harms, such as gun violence. The statutory caps on liability range widely, from $800 to $25,000, with most in the $1,000-$5,000 range.
Connecticut has a parental responsibility statute covering a wide range of behavior and capping liability at $5,000. But it wouldn’t apply to the Newtown case because, like virtually every state’s statute, it only covers children under 18.  Adam Lanza was 20 years old so, even though he lived with his mother, he was not a legal minor.

BDE:  If we do hold parents more accountable for the acts of their children, would this be done through the criminal system?
CG:   The statutes range, with some imposing civil, some quasi-criminal and some criminal liability. They are usually punishable by a fine or a parenting training program. Actual arrests and prosecutions under parental responsibility statutes are very rare. Some supporters of these statutes argue that, even if they’re not enforced, they help by sending a public message about what good parenting is. But the little information we have about how police view them suggest that they are rarely enforced because it is not worth the resources it takes to prosecute them and most of the parents who would be prosecuted are facing so many other problems that this is not going to affect their behavior.
--Compiled by Charisma Miller, Esq.

December 18, 2012 - 4:48pm


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