A judge in New York has ruled that a lawsuit can be brought against a girl who was aged just four years when she was involved in a collision while riding her bike with an elderly woman who needed surgery after suffering a fractured hip in the accident and died three weeks later.
Justice Paul Wooten of State Supreme Court in Manhattan, who cited precedents from as far back as 1928 in support of his decision, made no finding in terms of liability.
However, the case means that the estate of the dead woman is now free to bring an action for damages against the girl, now aged six, a boy who was also riding his bike, and both children’s parents, according to The New York Times, citing a report in The New York Law Journal.
The incident took place in April 2009 when Juliet Breitman and Jacob Kohn, both aged four, were apparently racing each other on their bikes on the pavement outside a building on East 52nd Street, while being supervised by their mothers.
The pair were involved in a collision with 87-year-old Claire Menagh, whose estate alleges was “seriously and severely injured” in the accident. The connection, if any, between Ms Menagh’s fractured hip and her subsequent death was not reported.
Ms Menagh’s estate is suing the two children and their mothers, whom they say acted negligently. James P. Tyrie, representing Juliet, said she was not “engaged in an adult activity” when the accident took place, saying “she was riding her bicycle with training wheels under the supervision of her mother,” and that she was too young to be held liable for negligence.
Mr Tyrie continued: “Courts have held that an infant under the age of 4 is conclusively presumed to be incapable of negligence.”
However, Justice Wooten refused to apply that presumption to children aged over four, denying an application that the case be dismissed on grounds of Juliet’s age at the time of the accident, saying that she was only three months away from her fifth birthday when it happened and could therefore be sued.
In his decision, Justice Wooten wrote: that Mr Tyrie “correctly notes that infants under the age of 4 are conclusively presumed incapable of negligence,” adding, “Juliet Breitman, however, was over the age of 4 at the time of the subject incident. For infants above the age of 4, there is no bright-line rule.”
The judge also disagreed with an argument by Mr. Tyrie that Juliet should not be held liable due to the presence of her mother, saying: “A parent’s presence alone does not give a reasonable child carte blanche to engage in risky behavior such as running across a street.”
Citing the example of a “reasonably prudent child” who would know not to run out into the street, whether or not their parent was present, he said that the important point was whether or not the parent actually encouraged the child’s behaviour, and if they had, the child could not be held liable.
In this case, he continued, there was no indication that Juliet’s mother “had any active role in the alleged incident, only that the mother was ‘supervising,’ a term that is too vague to hold meaning here.”
In conclusion, the judge wrote that there was not any evidence that Juliet had a “lack of intelligence or maturity” or anything else that would “indicate that another child of similar age and capacity under the circumstances could not have reasonably appreciated the danger of riding a bicycle into an elderly woman.”
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