Needham v. Price – Parental Immunity Doctrine Won’t Bar NC Child Injury Claim

The parental immunity doctrine is a long-standing legal principle holding that minor children can’t sue their parents for tort-related claims, and parents can’t sue their children either. The general idea is to avoid undermining parental authority and control over his or her children, and also to maintain the peace of the family unit.
Most courts adhere to the 1891 Mississippi Supreme Court ruling in Hewlett v. George in which it was found so long as a parent is under obligation to care for the child, the child is under the reciprocal duty to aid, comfort and obey. Criminal laws will provide children protection from parental wrongdoing or violence, the theory goes.

But, there are many exceptions to this doctrine. It’s not an issue that comes up often, but it did recently arise in the North Carolina Court of Appeals case of Needham v. Price, where it is alleged willful and malicious injury was caused. In those cases, parents cannot expect immunity, and that’s how the appellate court ruled in overturning a previous summary judgment favoring defendant father.

According to court records, plaintiffs are a guardian ad litem and mother of three minor children. Plaintiff mother and the children’s father were in a long-term domestic relationship, though they never married. They separated at some point prior to November 2009.

Approximately three years later, plaintiff filed a civil injury lawsuit against defendant for a series of allegedly negligent acts. She also brought certain claims on behalf of the three children – for negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, intentional infliction of emotional distress, premises liability, gross negligence and punitive damages.

She alleged in part she and the children were occupying a home owned by defendant when defendant sneaked into the home through the garage and attic in the middle of the night. As he attempted to gain access to the dwelling, he caused a ladder to unfold in the hallway below, and the ladder struck plaintiff in the head, neck and shoulder. The result was that she suffered serious and permanent injuries.

As a result of the noise, the children were awoken to discover their mother seriously injured, crying out in pain on the floor. They also watched as their father screamed obscenities at their mother while the scene unfolded. In addition to her physical injuries, she claims the children suffered severe emotional and psychological injuries as a direct result of the incident.

Defendant sought summary judgment with regard to all plaintiff’s claims brought on behalf of the children, citing the parent-child immunity doctrine. Trial court granted defendant’s request.

Appellate court reversed in part.

Plaintiff conceded the doctrine would preclude her children’s claims for compensation for ordinary negligence. However, she argued the doctrine of parent-child immunity is inapplicable as it relates to claims of willful and malicious acts, and therefore, claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress, gross negligence and punitive damages should be allowed to press forward.

Appellate court agreed. The court noted the 1992 North Carolina Supreme Court decision of Doe By v. Through Connolly v. Holt in which it was held the doctrine has never been applicable to actions involving minors seeking compensation from parents who carry out willful or malicious acts.

Contact our North Carolina personal injury lawyers at Lee Law Offices today by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Needham v. Price, Jan. 20, 2015, North Carolina Court of Appeals

More Blog Entries:
Ramseyer v. Dalisky – $40 Million Birth Injury Litigation Underway, Feb. 11, 2015, Asheville North Carolina Injury Lawyer Blog

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