Monday, December 14, 2009

When Liability Can And Cannot Arise From A Child Learning To Ride

Parents of young children just learning to ride a bicycle worry about injuries. A small child on a bicycle or tricycle can be especially difficult for a motorist to notice. Also, young kids tend to be fearless to a fault. On the other hand, parents tend not to focus so much the harm a young child on a bicycle could cause to others, and the liability that may arise from a child's early efforts at staying upright on a bike. This wasn't a topic on my mind until I came across a 2001 case from the Illinois Appellate Court's second district, Appelhans v. McFall, 325 Ill.App.3d 232 (2nd Dist. 2001). In that case, a 66 year old woman was walking along the edge of a roadway when a five year old boy rode up on his bicycle and struck her from behind, causing her to fall and fracture her hip. In her subsequent lawsuit, the woman alleged that (1) the boy was negligent in the manner in which he rode his bicycle; (2) his parents failed to instruct him on how to properly ride his bike; and (3) his parents failed to "supervise him while he rode his bicycle on a public roadway because they knew or should have know that his youth would prevent him from considering the safety of pedestrians." Appelhans, 325 Ill.App.3d at 234.

The trial court dismissed all three of the woman's allegations and the Illinois Appellate Court affirmed that decision. With regard to the allegation that the boy himself was negligent, the court reaffirmed the well-established "tender years doctrine." The court stated, "The rationale for the tender years doctrine is the belief that a child under the age of seven is incapable of recognizing and appreciating risk and is therefore deemed incapable of negligence as a matter of law. The child's immaturity limits his liability regardless of whether, as a litigant, he is the plaintiff or the defendant." Id. at 236. The court noted that had the child been between the ages of seven and 14 a jury would have been asked to consider the child's conduct considering his "age, capacity, intelligence, and experience." Id. at 238. Between seven and 14, the presumption that a minor is incapable of negligence is rebuttable. Once a person is over the age of 14, in Illinois he or she will be held to the same standard as an adult. However, under the facts it was asked to consider, the Appelhans court held that the five year old defendant could not be found guilty of negligence.

With regard to the allegations against the boy's parents for negligent supervision, the court noted that the parents had no reason to believe that their son might cause someone harm. The court stated:

In Illinois, the parent-child relationship does not automatically render parents liable for the torts of their minor children. Parents may be liable, however, if they do not adequately control or supervise their child. To prove a claim of negligent supervision, a plaintiff must show that (1) the parents were aware of specific instances of prior conduct sufficient to put them on notice that the act complained of was likely to occur and (2) the parents had the opportunity to control the child.

Id. at 238-40.

In Appelhans, the plaintiff did not allege that the parents were aware of their son striking anyone with his bike on a previous occasion. Therefore, they could not be held liable for the woman's injury. The court stated that, "We conclude that holding parents strictly liable for failing to prevent their child's negligence is unreasonable and unsupported by the law." Id. at 240.

Notwithstanding the facts alleged in Appelhans, I am inclined to believe that five-year-olds rarely cause harm to others while learning to ride their bikes. Certainly, they pose a much greater risk to themselves then to others. Unless they know that their child is prone to exceptionally devilish conduct, parents need not be too concerned about liability arising out of their young children learning to pedal around the neighborhood.

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