The 4-year-Old Defendant

Hi Readers! Probably by now most of you  have heard of this bizarre case: A 4-year-old girl and a boy her same age were racing their bikes on the sidewalk, training wheels and all, when they ran into an elderly woman using a walker. The woman fell, broke her hip and died three weeks later. Tragic. Now her estate is suing, among others, the 4 year olds. When the girl’s lawyer (just writing that is weird) protested that the girl was too young to be held liable, the judge said if she were YOUNGER than 4, he’d agree. But as she was already 4, he is letting the trial proceed.

A bunch of you sent me notes about the case, and this one really struck me, from Matt Wall, in California:

Dear Free-Range Kids: It’s an unfortunate accident — a four-year-old on a bike collides with an elderly woman, who is hurt, and later dies, although to what extent as a result of this injury isn’t clear. Being hit by a bike certainly didn’t help.

But we live in a society where somebody has to be at fault, so why not sue the four-year-old? What I find so strange about this is this finding by the judge: He wrote that the the girl’s lawyer had presented no evidence as to the child’s lack of intelligence or maturity, nor that “a child of similar age and capacity” would not have understood the danger of riding a bicycle into an old woman.

So a child has the presumed competence — the “maturity,”  at the age of four to be sued? But not the maturity or competence to stay by themselves in a car for five minutes at age eight? Or to ride the subway alone at age nine?

We have parent-teacher conferences at our school this week. It’s a wonderful school but they have their own liability rules and other rules handed to them by the state. One of them is we can’t have our
six-year-old play quietly by himself in the protected court yard right outside his own first grade classroom while we meet with his teacher because he would be “unsupervised.” So we’re obliged to engage
a babysitter for an hour (good luck, midday on a weekday, we’re paying a premium for this).

Fear of the bogeyman of child predators, etc.,  is a part of what drives this hyper-sheltered vision of childhood. But it also seems that our extremely litigious society creates a different kind of fear. I wonder how many kids will now be denied the simple thrill of riding ahead on their bikes a little by parents petrified the kids or they themselves will be on the hook for a multimillion dollar judgment if an accident happens? — Matt

Couldn’t have said it better myself.  — L.


Felons from an earlier era?