You better be seated for this one…a trial court judge in New York City has allowed a four-year-old child to be sued for negligence over an accident she caused while riding her training-wheel-equipped bicycle down a street in Manhattan.
I’m giving this case attention not just because it’s further proof of how some people are trying to use the courts as a lawsuit lottery, but because it underscores a point I have been making in my most recent “Let’s Be Fair” commentaries: too many judges are abdicating their role as gatekeepers to the courts.
You can read about the case in a New York Times article here. Basically, little Juliet Breitman and a friend were riding their bikes on the sidewalk on 52nd Street in Manhattan with their parents when Juliet ran into an elderly lady causing her to be injured. The parents who were riding with the children were also sued.
There are two facts about this case that need to be highlighted. First, some Internet reports on this story mistakenly state that the woman died shortly after the accident as a result of the injuries, but a subsequent clarification in the NYT article clearly states the woman died months later of unrelated causes. Second, after doing some research, I’ve found out that it is absolutely legal for children to ride a bike on the sidewalks of New York. Section 4-07c3 of the NYC transportation code says adults can’t ride bikes on sidewalks, but if you’re twelve or under, it’s fine.
In making his decision to allow the lawsuit against Juliet to move forward, Judge Paul Wooten cited cases dating back more than 80 years. Using a case from 1928 in which a judge ruled that “infants under the age of 4 are conclusively presumed incapable of negligence,” Judge Wooten noted that since Juliet was nine months over the age of four, she could therefore be sued.
My question is why didn’t the judge in this case use the same kind of common sense the judge in 1928 used? Judges create case law all the time to deal with unusual situations, e.g. that’s what the judge did in 1928. Tort law covering injuries like this has been built over hundreds of years based on what judges decide is right given the circumstances involved. This judge simply decided to hand this case off to a jury to let them make the hard decision. That’s just not right, and it’s one of the main reasons our courts have become clogged with ridiculous lawsuits.
I bet most four-year-olds can’t even pronounce the word negligence, let alone understand what it means. However, parents in NYC now have a better understanding of how poorly the courts operate. It would be no surprise if some of them now discourage their children from riding their bikes for fun and exercise so they don’t risk being sued. This is not the message our courts should be sending parents who are trying to raise healthy, well-adjusted children. Four-year-olds should not be subject to negligence lawsuits over bicycle accidents!