The parents? Probably not, I told him, because in New York a parent cannot be held liable for the negligent supervision of his or her children unless one or both of two judicially recognized exceptions to this general rule applies:
- if the child has a tendency to engage in vicious conduct and the parent is aware of such tendency; or
- where the parent negligently entrusts a dangerous instrument to his or her child.
The facts of the loss my client described implicated neither exception (kids had not previously shown pyromanic tendencies and parents did not entrust lighter to kids), so I asked whether my client had considered suing the kids directly. Sue the kids? Can kids be held liable in New York for injuries or damage they negligently cause? If they are older than four years of age, yes they can.
Recently, in Menagh v Breitman, 2010 NY Slip Op 32892(U)(Sup. Ct., New York Co., decided 10/1/2010), Justice Paul Wooten of the New York County Supreme Court was called upon to consider whether the 4½-year-old defendant, Juliet Breitman, who had accidentally crashed her training-wheeled bicycle into and knocked down an 87-year-old woman on a Manhattan sidewalk, could be held liable in negligence. Juliet's attorney made a pre-answer motion to dismiss the action against her, contending that an infant aged four years and nine months is non sui juris, i.e., incapable of negligence as a matter of law.
After surveying the New York case law on the issue of whether and under what circumstances a child may be considered non sui juris as a matter of law, and noting that "[f]or infants above the age of four, there is no bright line rule, and 'in considering the conduct of an infant in relation to other persons or their property, the infant should be held to a standard of care ... by what is expected of a reasonably prudent child of that age, experience, intelligence and degree of development and capacity'”, Justice Wooten denied Juliet's motion, holding:
So can or should a reasonably prudent six- or eight-year-old know not to play with fire in a barn? Although some might argue that children under the age of 10 cannot fully appreciate the dangers of playing with fire and that behaviors demonstrating a curiosity with fire are natural in young children, I would say yes, a six- or -eight-year-old should know not to play with fire in a barn and if a jury agrees, then my client may be able to hold the kids liable in negligence. And a jury will probably get to decide that question, as their age should foreclose a non sui juris finding as a matter of law.Applying the Camardo [v. New York State Rys., 247 N.Y. 111 (1928)]; conflicting inferences rule and reasonable child standard to the facts presented here, defendant-movant cannot be held non sui juris as a matter of law. The motion papers and pleadings, do not indicate that defendant-movant‘s mother had any active role in the alleged incident, only that the mother was “supervising,” a term that is too vague to hold meaning here. There are no exhibits containing evidence as to the defendant-movant’s lack of intelligence or maturity, nor are there any other mitigating factors apparent in the record that would indicate that another child of similar age and capacity under the circumstances could not have reasonably appreciated the danger of riding a bicycle into an elderly woman.
Of course, if there's no personal liability insurance to respond to a negligence suit against a minor, what's the point, right? Executing a money judgment against a six-year-old's Nintendo DS or Lego Ultimate Building Set seems a bit harsh.