Toddlers are Too Young to be Tried
By Judy Yoo '14
Although Jared Crum ’11 is off this week, the

contentious issues are not.

In April 2009, two four-year-olds, Juliet Breitman and Jacob Kohn, 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. As the children raced on their bikes (equipped with training wheels), they struck down an 87-year-old woman named Claire Menagh who was walking in front of the building. The collision caused her to suffer a hip fracture that required surgery. Three months later, Claire Menagh died of unrelated causes.

Menagh’s estate sued the children as liable for negligence. J. Breitman’s lawyer, James P. Tyrie, responded to the argument of negligence with the claim that the girl was too young to be held liable. He stated that previous cases have ruled that children infants under the age of four are incapable of negligence. Unfortunately, Justice Wooten ruled that Juliet can be held liable for her actions because, at the time of the accident she was four years and five months old. Justice Wooten decided that her risky behavior was not something a reasonable child of the same age would have done. Justice Wooten stated that “a parent’s presence alone does not give a reasonable child carte blanche to engage in risky behavior.” Justice Wooten also claimed that while the parents would have been liable if they encouraged the child’s irresponsible behavior, there is no evidence of this fact. He also points out the crucial idea that Juliet did not lack “intelligence or maturity or anything to indicate that another child of similar age and capacity under the circumstance could not have reasonably appreciated the danger of riding a bicycle into an elderly woman.” Justice Wooten’s ruling was based on a previous case dating back to 1928 regarding judgment of child negligence.

Justice Wooten’s final ruling of the case is unfortunate. The idea that a four-year-old can be sued for a bicycling accident is just unbelievable.

Justice Wooten ruled against Juliet, stating that the past cases of four-year-old children could not be applied to her. The reason, according to Justice Wooten, was that she was not four but three months away from turning five.

Toddlers undergo rapid physical development within the period of a few months. However, the differences between a four-year-old and a five-year-old are negligible. According to The National Network for Child Care, one of the major similarities is that both four and five-year-olds like to invent games with rules and still confuse the boundary between fantasy and reality. They like to try new things, take risks and experience frustrations. Thus, according to the organization, it seems that a reasonable child, a “normal” child, seems capable of making a mistake as Breitman and Kohn had done. I am not saying that it was perfectly okay for the children to injure the old woman. What I am saying, however, is that the children may have been too young to take on the responsibility — the children may have been too preoccupied with the fun and risk of a make-believe game that their minds blurred the lines between reality and fantasy.

The suit stated that Menagh’s injury was “caused by carelessness, recklessness and gross negligence.” Although the suit does not explicitly state so, it also seems to hint at the idea that the hip injury aided in the death of the elderly woman. Clearly, however, the idea that a woman is dead because of those kids is pure speculation. The elderly woman did not die three days or even three weeks after the injury. She died three months later. The woman, at the time of the incident, was 87 years old. She was already at an age susceptible to other diseases and a chance of natural death. It seems too much of a stretch to link the toddlers’ misbehavior to the woman’s later death. The children’s behavior on the bicycles was nothing to be applauded. No one would disagree that the children could have been more careful and more aware of their surroundings. However, it is one thing to acknowledge this fact and another to make them legally responsible. Justice Wooten should not have ruled so harshly against the children, children who haven’t even entered primary school. If Justice Wooten feel the burden of placing a blame upon someone for the elderly women’s injury, it should be put on the parents who allowed the children to break the law under their own supervision, not the children themselves.

Issue 08, Submitted 2010-11-03 02:48:08