4-Year-Old Child Can be Sued for Negligence

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It has long been held by U.S. courts that children under the age of four cannot be not sued nor held liable for negligence. But in a recent New York court ruling, the judge held that a negligence case against a young girl, just months shy of her fifth birthday, can proceed.

The case involves an accident that the little girl caused while she was riding her bicycle with a friend down East 52nd Street in Manhattan. She struck an 87-year old woman named Claire Menagh, who was walking in front of the building and, according to the complaint, was “seriously and severely injured,” suffering a hip fracture that required surgery. She died three months later of unrelated causes.

Ms. Menagh’s estate sued the children and their families, arguing that they had acted negligently during the accident. In response the girl’s family’s lawyer held that she was not engaged in an adult activity when she caused the accident and was incapable of negligence because of her young age. The lawyer also filed a motion to dismiss.

That motion was not granted and the judge has allowed the case to proceed, noting that although children under the age of four are “conclusively presumed incapable of negligence,” the girl was older than four at the time of the accident. The judge also stated that no “bright line” exists in determining when a child can be capable of negligence. Furthermore, the judge added that despite a young age, there are certain activities that a “reasonably prudent child” knows or should know are risky, such as crossing the street without looking, or riding a bicycle down a metropolitan sidewalk in a reckless manner, the victim’s attorney would argue.

In response to an article in the New York time on the ruling, many readers wrote to the editor expressing their agreement of disagreement with the court’s ruling, demonstrating the controversy of the matter. Those in favor (at least of the letters printed in Saturday’s paper) were written by family members of victims of similar accidents: elderly women who were struck by children riding their bikes in parks and on sidewalks, injured and died as a result. However, I agree with those who disagree with the courts ruling, seeing it instead as evidence of the litigious nature of our society, looking for someone to blame when there is an accident. Sometimes, accidents do happen. Our legal system is filled with too many contingency cases of this nature, filed by attorneys looking for someone to pay their legal fees.

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