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Case law update: can a child sue his or her parents for negligence? Yes, in certain circumstances.

Posted Thursday, September 18, 2014 by Christopher L. Thayer

alt textIn a recent decision from Division II of the Washington Court of Appeals, Woods v. H.O. Sports, et al, the court addressed the issue of whether a child can bring a tort claim for personal injuries against a parent. In Woods, the father Michael Woods was operating a 240 horsepower jet boat and was pulling an inflatable “tube” manufactured by H.O. Sports Company. Mr. Woods’ son, Torres, and two other boys were on the tube. Mr. Woods acknowledged towing the tube at speeds of up to 30 mph, even though the manufacturer recommends speeds of no higher than 15 mph for kids. As the tube went over a wake, all three boys were thrown off the tube and Torres was injured severely, breaking his neck and rendering him a quadriplegic.

Torres sued H.O. Sports Company, alleging product liability, and also his father for negligence. In Washington, like most other states, courts recognize a concept known as the “Parental Immunity Doctrine”. The Parental Immunity Doctrine is a judicially created rule that, traditionally, operated as a near complete bar to any child’s lawsuit for personal injuries caused by a parent, regardless of the wrongfulness of the conduct. The primary purpose of the rule is to avoid the “chilling effect tort liability would have on a parent’s exercise of parental discipline and parental discretion.”

Over the years, Washington has limited application of this doctrine and provided three main exceptions. First, courts have held the doctrine inapplicable where a child is injured as a result of a parent negligently operating an automobile. Second, the doctrine does not apply where a parent injures a child while engaging in a business activity. Third, where a parent engages in “willful or wanton misconduct or intentionally wrongful conduct.”

In Woods, the court looked to the guiding principles behind application of the doctrine and concluded that it the Parental Immunity Doctrine only applies where the case involves “parental control, discipline or discretion … . “ Noting that the son (Torres) did not allege that his father was negligent in his parenting by allowing him to ride on the tube at a high rate of speed, but rather was negligent in the manner in which he operated the boat, the Court concluded that the Parental Immunity Doctrine did not bar a recovery in this case.

Reading between the lines, it appears that cases that have sought to limit or narrow the Parental Immunity Doctrine, like the Woods’ court, may well be driven by insurance coverage issues. Although not stated in the opinion, presumably the primary reason to sue the parent in this case was to trigger the father’s insurance coverage – not to go after the father’s own assets. The same logic applies for auto accident cases and business accident cases. The intricacies of tort liability law and insurance coverage often affect legal strategy and opinions in subtle ways that are difficult for the average lay person to make sense of. Although on the face of it, having the son sue his father sounds terrible, by allowing this case to go forward, the Woods’ court likely made available significant liability insurance proceeds which could be used to help the quadriplegic boy receive the care that he needs.

Feel free to call Christopher L. Thayer at 206-805-1494 if you have any questions.

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