As a personal injury firm, we wrestle with the intricacies of negligence law every day. But a particularly tricky issue we've dealt with a number of times involves injuries caused or contributed to by a child.
Normally people are responsible for the damage they cause by their accidental or careless conduct. Those injured in accidents are entitled to be made whole for the medical bills incurred, wages lost, and pain experienced.
But what happens when a young child causes an injury to someone else, or whose actions contribute to his own injuries?
Under Ohio law, children under the age of 7 cannot be found negligent for injuries they cause. Judges have concluded that very young children don't have the capacity to fully appreciate the consequences that flow from certain acts. Even children between the ages of 7 and 14 are presumably not negligent for their conduct, but that presumption can be overcome by presenting evidence that the child possessed the maturity and intelligence to appreciate the consequences of certain conduct.
The first element of the negligence equation deals with the duty owed by the person who caused the harm to the injured party. Duty roughly revolves around a person's anticipation and knowledge that an injury could occur by an act or failure to act. The courts don't feel that a 6-year-old has sufficient foresight to appreciate that certain behaviors can cause harm.
So, let's say Luke and Ryan, both 6, are riding their bikes together down the street and Luke decides to try to ride no-handed. Luke, not being particularly coordinated yet, loses control and crashes into Ryan, sending him to the hospital with a broken arm. In this case, despite Luke's careless actions, he could not be found negligent as a matter of law.
That's a pretty straightforward idea. The more complicated version occurs when the child's actions contribute to his own injuries. Ohio courts employ a concept called comparative negligence that allows jurors to weigh the fault of both the person who caused the injury and the injured party. If the injured party was more than 50 percent responsible for causing the accident, his claim must fail.
With that concept in mind, assume Jim and Bob, both adults, are driving separate cars and that they're approaching an intersection with a four-way stop. Jim blows his stop sign, and Bob, who is crossing Jim's path, also fails to stop and gets injured in the resulting collision. It would be next to impossible for Bob to make a claim in that situation because he's just as responsible as Jim for causing the accident.
The twist comes about with the involvement of a young child. Let's say we have the same situation as above except that the other person involved in the accident is a 6-year-old on a bicycle. He darted out into the intersection without paying attention to the stop sign, so his actions contributed just as much to the accident as Jim's. But remember that children under 7 can't be negligent as a matter of law.
Given that, the fault of the accident will rest entirely on the adult because he also ran a stop sign. In this case, the boy's parents could sue Jim for the child's injuries. Whether you think that is right or wrong presents a different issue, but that's how the situation likely would play out in the court system.
Dale Emch practices law at the Charles E. Boyk Law Offices, LLC, in Toledo. In his column, he will discuss general legal principles and answer readers' questions. Neither Mr. Emch nor The Blade present or intend his column to be taken as legal advice. Readers seeking legal advice should consult with an attorney. Readers should send their questions to Mr. Emch at firstname.lastname@example.org or Dale Emch, 405 Madison Ave., Suite 1200, Toledo, OH 43604. His blog is at www.toledocaraccidentlawyerblog.com