Nielsen v. Bell – 4-Year-Old Cannot be Negligent for Personal Injury

Child care can be a harrowing profession, not the least of which because children – especially those very young – frequently imperil themselves. Proper care requires constant vigilance and caution.toys1

However, as the case of Nielsen v. Bell reveals, it may not be just the child who is at-risk.

In this case, the Utah Supreme Court was asked to consider whether a 4-year-old boy and his parents could be held liable for injuries suffered by his teen babysitter when he threw a toy at her eye.

Here’s what happened:

The teen was babysitting the young boy, who was almost 5, when he threw a rubber toy dolphin at her face. The dolphin struck the girl in the eye. Unfortunately, the teen had previously undergone a corneal transplant in that eye. As a result of the incident, she lost all vision in that eye.

Plaintiff filed a personal injury lawsuit, naming both the boy’s parents and the boy. Against the parents, she alleged negligent supervision. Against the boy, she alleged negligence.

Parents moved for summary judgment. Plaintiff conceded that she had no evidence to prove the boy’s parents had been directly negligent. However, she argued they could be held vicariously liable for the negligent actions of their son.

The district court said it could not find as a matter of law that a young boy was incapable of negligence. Thus, the court granted summary judgment in favor of defense on the issue of negligent supervision, but denied it on the claim against the child.

The Utah Supreme Court granted an interlocutory review of this part of the district court’s decision regarding the claim against the child.

The court noted that state courts have taken a variety of approaches when it comes to ascertaining whether young children can be held liable for negligence. For example, some states have rejected any sort of fixed age limits, holding that a child’s capacity to be negligent will be found only if reasonable minds do not disagree (a very subjective test). However, most states do have some sort of age cutoff limit  – usually ages 4, 5, 6 or 7.

Plaintiff alleged that Utah law doesn’t have a fixed cutoff for child negligence. However, plaintiffs argued that state precedent has precluded children 7 and younger are incapable of being negligent. Alternatively, defense argued the courts have held children under 5 can’t be held liable.

The court denied that it had made any such finding about children under the age of 7. However, it did agree with the alternative argument that it had found children under the age of 5 can’t be liable for negligence.

The court noted that when the question of whether a 5-year-old child or a 6-year-old child could be negligent, it had held this was a question for a jury. Still, the court said it had recognized there was an age at which a child is so young and so immature as to require the court to recognize that he or she is not responsible for their own actions. The dividing line they set was children under age 5 and children over age 5.

In South Carolina, courts have held that children may be comparatively negligent for their own injuries (see the Ct. App. 2006 case of Estate of Haley ex rel. Haley v. Brown).

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:

Nielsen v. Bell , March 24, 2016, Utah Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Nursing Home Arbitration Agreements Can be Tossed, March 14, 2016, Rock Hill Injury Lawyer Blog

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