Author: Attorney Christopher A. Meyer
All of us who are parents have probably either let our children visit other families’ homes or have had other children over at our home. Sometimes these are just afternoons, sometimes they are “sleepovers” or even longer. I think we all recognize that when other people’s children are placed in our care we have a moral obligation to see that they will be well taken care of. But is there a legal obligation as well?
In a recent case, Kellermann, Administrator v. McDonough (July 17, 2009) the Virginia Supreme Court said yes. In addition the Justices said that if a promise is made, such as the children will not be allowed to be in a car with a young male driver, and that promise is broken, then there may be liability.
The trial judge decided, on a motion called a demurrer, that even if all the facts alleged by the suing parents were true, there could be no recovery because there was no duty to supervise teenagers in Virginia and therefore dismissed the case without a trial. The Virginia Supreme Court, in overruling the trial judge, assumed that the facts as alleged were true and held that such a legal duty does exist in Virginia and sent the case back for trial by a jury.
The facts as alleged are a parent’s worst nightmare. Two girls had been best friends when they had lived in Henrico County and went to school together. One of the girls had moved with her family two years before the accident to Wake Forest, North Carolina. At the time of the accident both girls were 14. The girl now living in Wake Forest, was having some problems and her parents thought that if she could come back to Henrico for a day or two and visit her friend, that it might settle down their daughter.
An agreement for a sleepover was reached and the Wake Forest girl was driven by her father about half way to Henrico, where she was picked up by the Henrico girl’s mother. At the transfer, the father emphasized that his daughter was not to be allowed in a car driven by a minor boy, and the mother of the Henrico girl agreed. When they got to Henrico, the girls were taken by the mother to a mall and dropped off. They went to a movie. There they met a 17-year-old boy that they knew, and also another 14-year-old female former classmate. After the movie, the boy offered to give the three girls a ride home. The girls called the Henrico mother, who agreed to let the 17-year-old boy drive the three girls home. The Wake Forest girl was reluctant to ride with a teenage boy driving, so the other former classmate tried to contact her own parents and other adult friends in the Richmond area for a ride home. Unfortunately, she could not reach anyone. Eventually the three 14-year-old girls got in the car with the 17-year-old boy.
The 17-year-old boy drove wildly at a high rate of speed on a curvy road over vehement protests from the girls. Apparently he slowed to 25 miles an hour at one point and taunted the girls by saying that they could jump out at that speed if they wanted to. The Wake Forest girl even texted her father and a friend during the ride and related that she was afraid she was going to die. The 17-year-old boy lost control at very high speed, ran off the road and hit a tree. Tragically, the Wake Forest girl died at VCU/MCV Hospital.
The Virginia Supreme Court held that there is a duty to use a reasonable degree of care to protect minor children placed in one’s care. As the Justices noted, if this wasn’t true then a parent could invite 4 or 5-year-olds to a sleepover and allow them to play with loaded guns. Secondly, the Justices stated that if one makes a promise in relation to the care, such as “no riding with a teenage boy driver” then a violation of that promise can result in liability.
As a former parent of teenagers, my belief is that this will most often arise in the context of alcohol. One certainly has the right in Virginia to teach one’s own teenage children about alcohol and allow them to experiment in their own home. But if a parent throws a party where minor children will be present and promises the other parents that “no alcohol will be served”, and then alcohol is served, there may not only be criminal liability but civil liability as well for any harm that occurs as a result.
Therefore, be careful. The parents of minor children that place them into the care of others on a sleepover or other occasion have the right to expect that the other parents will use reasonable care to keep their minor children safe, and if any promises are made as part of the occasion the parents and minor children have the legal and moral right to expect that the promises will be kept. And, as every parenting magazine recommends, be sure you know the parents that you entrust your child to, and consider the responsibility you are entrusting the other parents with when you leave your child into their care.
About the Author: Chris Meyer is a Richmond car accident lawyer with the firm Allen, Allen, Allen & Allen.