Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Irrational Lawsuits

From the New York Times, we have here a distinctly American litigation case: a New York judge has determined that a 4-year-old who accidently hit an old woman in a bike race with a friend can be sued for negligence.

Here's a quick overview of the story:
Juliet Breitman, 4, and Jacob Kohn, 5, were racing their bicycles, under the supervision of their mothers, Dana Breitman and Rachel Kohn, on the sidewalk of a building on East 52nd Street. At some point in the race, they struck an 87-year-old woman named Claire Menagh, who was walking in front of the building and, according to the complaint, was “seriously and severely injured,” suffering a hip fracture that required surgery. She died three months later of unrelated causes.

Her estate sued the children and their mothers, claiming they had acted negligently during the accident. In a response, Juliet’s lawyer, James P. Tyrie, argued that the girl was not “engaged in an adult activity” at the time of the accident — “She was riding her bicycle with training wheels under the supervision of her mother” — and was too young to be held liable for negligence.

[...] But Justice Wooten declined to stretch that rule to children over 4. On Oct. 1, he rejected a motion to dismiss the case because of Juliet’s age, noting that she was three months shy of turning 5 when Ms. Menagh was struck, and thus old enough to be sued.

Mr. Tyrie “correctly notes that infants under the age of 4 are conclusively presumed incapable of negligence,” Justice Wooten wrote in his decision, referring to the 1928 case. “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 lawyer blogs are abuzz with this story, and thousands of other laypeople have already given their opinions. At the risk of being redudant, here's my two cents:

In none of the blog posts and op-eds that I read did I find a discussion of whether litigation is even a valid means of redress. Since the money can't bring back life, these kinds of  lawsuits seem to be principally about deterring people from acting negligantly by penalizing them for doing so. But even if we determine the child is fully negligent, lawsuits can't punish her in a meaningful way. Four-year-olds have no income of their own to be deprived of. They don't even know what "litigation" means.

This case is by no means an isolated incident of irrational litigation; the U.S. seems to be an especially fertile breeding ground for it. It's easy to chalk it up to some cultural flaw, but I suspect there's something deeper going on—I just haven't had the time to research it properly.

1 comment:

  1. This kind of litigation probably wouldn't even go to court if it happened anywhere else. Sad.