Justice Paul Wooten of the State Supreme Court in Manhattan just ruled that Juliet Breitman, accused of running down an elderly woman while racing a bicycle with training wheels on a Manhattan sidewalk two years ago, can be sued for negligence. She was four years old at the time.
The justice cited precedents holding that yes, children under four cannot comprehend the concept of negligence, but once they hit four, you can trust them to be as responsible and careful and rational as, say, Oprah Winfrey, and a lot more trustworthy than Amy Winehouse. Okay, I’m paraphrasing. What the judge really said was that while defense counsel was correct to point out “that infants under the age of four are conclusively presumed incapable of negligence, 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.”
Uh-huh. Maybe there’s no bright-line rule because people don’t often sue four-year-olds for negligence, since only a heartless and venal accident victim would ever sue a child so young, alleging that the child did “something which a reasonably prudent person would not do, or [failed] to do something which a reasonably prudent person would do under like circumstances. A departure from what an ordinary reasonable member of the community would do in the same community.” That is a legal definition of negligence, and it is absurd, foolish, senseless, illogical, cruel, irresponsible and unfair to apply it to a four-year old, for the brilliantly obvious reason that there is no such thing as a reasonable four-year old, a prudent four-year old, or a four-year old that anyone of sound mind would call “an ordinary reasonable member of the community.” They are not ordinary members of the community. They can’t read. They don’t have jobs. They can’t drive. They can’t cook their own food. They don’t comprehend death, or ethics, or religion or money or sex. They believe in Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny. They think Barney is entertaining. A full-grown woman who had the mental abilities of a four-year old would be regarded as seriously mentally deficient and an incompetent. Would Justice Wooten agree that such a woman could be sued for negligence? This would be a woman who would lose a game of Scrabble to Lenny from Of Mice and Men (“Tell me about the rabbits, George!”), and Lenny, you Steinbeck fans will recall, was not what anyone would refer to as “reasonable.”
The more one reads the justice’ opinion, the more one wonders if he has been confused by watching too many E-Trade ads—you know, the ones with the hip talking babies. There was no evidence, he wrote, of Juliet’s “lack of intelligence or maturity” or anything to “indicate that another child of similar age and capacity under the circumstances could not have reasonably appreciated the danger of riding a bicycle into an elderly woman.” There is no evidence of Juliet’s “lack of maturity?’ She’s was four years old! How much more evidence of “lack of maturity” do we need?
Sometimes the law gets caught in these dark, muddy holes, where careful, scholarly interpretation leads to manifestly unjust and, as in this case, nonsensical results. What is needed in such situations is courageous good sense and an ability to know an obvious wrong when one sees it. A four-year old cannot and should not be sued for negligence. It is obvious, whether a court has found fit to say previously or not. I know the Justice Paul Wooten isn’t saying that Juliet was negligent, just that the fact that she was four doesn’t legally preclude it. Still, his ruling is a classic example of the law being unethical.
Which it is not supposed to be.
Even a four-year-old could figure that out.