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Parental immunity addressed by the Court of Appeals

Chadwick Vandonkelaar suffered a severe injury to one of his fingers at the Kid's Kourt day care program operated by Maryanne Barringer.  His mother brought a legal action against the day care owner and operatoron Chad's behalf.  The defendants admitted fault in allowing the child's injury.  After the parents provided the defendants with mandatory medical authorizations, the defendant's insurer's attorney met with the child's doctor privately.  The attorney filed an affidavit alleging that the doctor felt that the parents' failure to schedule physical therapy for the child significantly interfered with the child's recovery of complete hand function.  The defense attorney used this information to seek a dilatory amendment, adding the parents as "third-parties at fault," and thus reducing the damage obligation of the daycare.

The trial court rejected the late amendment of the daycare's pleadings, holding that under the law the parents were "immune" from any obligation to the child.  The lower court pointed to several existing Michigan rulings that allow parental liability to a child only where the alleged parental negligence does not arise out of "reasonable parental authority" or the provision of food, shelter and medical care. The court reasoned that if the parents were immune from liability to the child, they could not be "third-parties at fault."

The defendants appealed, arguing that the parents' legal immunity did not preclude them from being partially at fault and therefore reducing the damage obligation of the defendants. A majority of the Court of Appeals ruled that it need not address this issue, since by its interpretation of the facts, the parents were responsible for a separate "tort" that caused a new, different injury to the child.  Under this approach, the day care would be responsible only for the damages it had caused and not for the later damages (if any) resulting from the failure to pursue timely physical therapy.  This holding failed to take into account long-standing Michigan law holding the wrongdoer responsible for an entire injury--even if it was compounded by negligent treatment. 

The entire argument from all parties seems to resemble the old philosophical question of how many angels can fit on the head of a pin:  much ado over nonsense with little consideration of valid public policy or common sense.  Either parents should be responsible for a child's injury and answerable under the law, or they should not:  and if they aren't, an admitted at-fault party should not be able to reduce its obligation to the innocent child by arguing poor parenting.

Thompson O’Neil, P.C.
309 East Front Street
Traverse City, Michigan 49684
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