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How Can a 4-Year-Old Be Sued?

Kids on BikesA New York judge ruled that a 4-year-old girl who accidentally hit an elderly woman with her bicycle can be sued for negligence, The New York Times reports.

The girl, Juliet Breitman, and her friend Jacob Kohn, who were both 4 at the time, were racing their bicycles (with training wheels!) on the sidewalk in ftont of their midtown Manhattan building as their mothers Dana Breitman and Rachel Kohn looked on. The children accidentally hit 87-year-old Claire Menagh, who broke her hip and died 3 months later from unrelated injuries.

Justice Paul Wooten of State Supreme Court in Manhattan ruled that a lawsuit against two children and their parents can move forward. How is that possible?

After Menagh’s death, her estate sued both the children and their mothers for negligence. But James P. Tyrie, Juliet’s attorney, argued that the girl was not “engaged in an adult activity” at the time of the accident.

“She was riding her bicycle with training wheels under the supervision of her mother” — and was too young to be held liable for negligence,” he said, arguing that New York law prevents the prosecution of children under 4.

But Justice Wooten pointed out that the girl was a few months shy of 5 years old. To be clear, the Judge didn’t rule that the 4-year-old shouldbe sued or that she was liable for Menagh’s death –just that the case against her can proceed.

I’ve never been to law school, so I certainly can’t speak to the ins and outs of this particular (or any) legal judgment. But I don’t understand how a 4-year old (or even a nearly 5-year-old) could possibly understand the ramifications of her actions.

I’m sure Clare Menagh’s children are bereft about losing their mother, but this was clearly a freak accident — an unfortunate, terrible accident, but an accident nonetheless. What is to be gained by suing a child? Could the mothers who were supervising the preschoolers possibly stopped this accident from occurring?

I find myself increasingly torn between wanting to protect my kids (and those innocent bystanders around them) and wanting to encourage their independence. It’s legal for kids under 12 to bike on the sidewalk in New York City, but, of course, accidents do happen. I’d hate for this case to spur parents to be even more overprotective.

“Self-consciously, a mother or father intervenes in children’s disputes at the risk of being deemed a helicopter parent; or maybe that parent does not hover, indulging in a rare moment of conversation, or God forbid, a complete train of thought, at the risk of being judged a bad caregiver — or, worse, having a child sued for negligence,” writes Susan Dominus in The New York Times.

As the mother of a 5-year-old who still believes in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, I am not so certain that a child that age even an intelligent one can appreciate the danger of riding a bicycle into an elderly woman.

What do you think about the Judge’s ruling in this case?

Photo: wikimedia

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