A 4-Year-Old Sued for Bicycle Accident? You Better Believe It (and Weep) —

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!

Welcome To Forbes Online Readers!

FFCJ Toolkit Tutorials

Look at our free Legal Liability Toolkit Tutorials while you’re here!

Welcome to all the new visitors who viewed today’s Forbes.com article!

The article features our annual Wacky Warning Label Contest and the American lawsuit crisis that makes these labels necessary. I hope you enjoy some of the stories below about wacky labels and loony lawsuits.

But after the laughing stops, people get mad! What are we going to do about this?!

There’s a terrific, practical program developed by the Center for America to help you avoid lawsuits in the first place. We’ve talked about the problem over many years – now, CFA has developed an easy, and, might I say, entertaining, way to help you deal most effectively with decisions you have to make that may expose you to legal liability.

Many of us – most small businesses and nonprofit community organizations included – are only one lawsuit away from bankruptcy.

Take a few moments and sink your teeth into the free Legal Liability Toolkit Tutorials available online now.

If you own a business, manage people, or work in one of the many professions where the threat of being sued constantly lurks in the background (who doesn’t?!), you’ll want to check out these tutorials.

Topics covered by the toolkits include: Recruiting and Hiring, Employee Performance Terminations, Employee Layoffs, Contract Negotiations and Drafting, and Clear and Effective Writing.