A 4-year-old is in a bicycle race with a friend. She crashes her bike into anelderly woman, who breaks several bones, and dies a few weeks later. The victim’s estate sues the girl’s parents, and also names the girl as a defendant. Should a 4-year-old girl be held legally responsible for what was an admittedly careless accident, but an accident nonetheless?
This is interesting, because young children are generally assumed to be incapable of committing negligence. For a quick refresher, negligence occurs when a person has a duty to adhere to a minimum standard of care, engages in conduct that falls below that standard, thereby causing an injury.
In ordinary cases, the standard of care for negligence is that of a “reasonable person.” Basically, this means that you have to act as a person of average intelligence, maturity, and prudence would in a similar situation. Insane people, and individuals of diminished mental capacity, are held to this same standard, even if they’re completely incapable of meeting that standard. That seems unfair to many people, but it’s the rule.
When considering if a child has been negligent, they’re held to the same standard, with one major difference: they’re held to the standard of a reasonable child of the same age. Obviously, the level of prudence that we should expect of a young child is very different from that expected of an adult.
Below a certain age, children are generally presumed to be incapable of negligence, since they’re incapable of forming any concept regarding safe and acceptable behavior. Generally, children under the age of 4 are conclusively presumed to be incapable of negligence. However, with a child aged 4 or older, there is no bright-line rule. Generally, children older than 4, but younger than the age of majority, are presumed to be incapable of committing negligence, but this presumption can be rebutted with sufficient evidence.
This case raises some very interesting questions about the nature of the negligence tort, and the cognitive dissonance required to apply it, in some cases.
After all, if the standard of care to which we hold children is modified, due to their limited maturity and life experience, why shouldn’t this apply to other people who are completely incapable of meeting the legal standard of care? After all, many people, though no fault of their own, suffer from mental illness, or diminished mental capacity, and may not be able to understand the standard of care to which they are bound, let alone deliberately conform their behavior to it.
This hardly seems fair, especially given how we treat children differently. Of course, I’ve noted before that, unlike criminal law, civil law is not really about placing moral blame or punishing those who deserve it. Rather, it’s about compensating the victims of wrongdoing for their injuries. In criminal law, a person’s mental capacity is definitely taken into account, since it affects how culpable they are for a criminal act.
In civil law, that’s not as much of a concern. The focus is on the end result of a person’s conduct, rather than how “blameworthy” they are for it.
So, the law is what it is. We modify the standard of care in negligence cases to take a child’s age into account, but not an adult’s mental capacity. It doesn’t seem fair, but there it is.
This raises a practical issue, however: what is the point of suing a 4-year-old girl? It’s not as if she has any assets to satisfy a judgment. Are they going to put a lien on her playhouse? Attach her bicycle? Garnish her college fund? Furthermore, it’s very difficult to determine what a “reasonable” 4-year-old would have done in a similar situation. Does the average 4-year-old appreciate the likely consequences of running their bicycle into a grown adult? Maybe, maybe not – children that age seem to have a sense that adults are “invincible” since, given their relative lack of physical strength, it’s nearly impossible for them to cause any real physical harm to a normal adult. And a 4-year-old probably doesn’t understand that elderly people tend to be in much more fragile physical condition than younger adults.
Obviously, the more prudent avenue for the plaintiffs would be to sue the girl’s parents for negligent supervision, which they have done. Parents are almost always held responsible for the actions of their minor children, and if parents don’t adequately supervise their children, and the child does something that causes an injury to someone else, the parents might be liable for the injury.
So, what should we learn from all of this? Well, if you’re a parent, this should serve as just one more reminder that you need to closely supervise your children, or face serious legal consequences. And if you’re a child old enough to read this, you should probably be extremely careful, unless you want a plaintiff garnishing your allowance.