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Can a Four-Year-Old be Sued For Negligence?

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By Tanya Roth, Esq. on October 29, 2010 12:45 PM

Here is a story of woe about Juliet, and for once, there is no Romeo in sight. No, this Juliet is facing the unhappy situation of a negligence lawsuit where an elderly lady was hit by a bike, injured and later died. Did we mention Juliet is 6? At the time of the accident, Juliet was three months short of her 5th birthday. Due to her advanced age, the judge in the case ruled she can be sued for negligence.

Before all you mothers have a collective heart attack, please note that as The New York Times reports, Justice Paul Wooten of the New York Supreme Court did not rule the underage Juliet is liable for the injuries that caused the death of 87-year-old Claire Menagh, just that she can be sued for negligence over the accident that caused Mrs. Menagh to be hit.

The Times reports that back in April, 2009, Juliet Breitman and Jacob Kohn were racing their bikes in front of their apartment building in NYC under the supervision of their respective moms. At some point during the race, Claire Menagh was hit, suffered a hip fracture and died three weeks later. Her estate sued Juliet, Jacob, and their mothers for negligence.

Juliet's lawyer argued that she was too young to be sued for negligence, but the court disagreed. There is a "bright line" cut-off point that says children aged four and under cannot be found to be negligent. Older than that, all bets are off. As Juliet was just shy of her 5th birthday at the time of the accident, Justice Wooten declined to give her a pass.

So what will happen to little Juliet? Will her insurance premiums rise due to the suit? Does she even have insurance premiums? The answers to both questions are of course, no. However, liability for bike accidents is a common legal question.

All people have a duty to act with reasonable care so as to not harm others. This is the basis for negligence law (and the golden rule). In the case of the possible negligence of a young child, the court will ask whether the child acted as a reasonable child of similar age and development would have acted. The child will not be held to an adult standard.

In addition, many states have a rebuttable presumption that a child between the ages of 4 and 14 is not capable of contributory negligence in a situation like a bike accident. So, if Juliet intentionally rammed her bike into a frail old lady, there may be a case there. If it was more a matter of loss of control or a simple miscalculation by an almost 5-year-old, probably not.

The moral of this story is, look before you ride -- even if you are 5. Oh, and wear a helmet. That one comes courtesy of your mom.

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