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Parental Immunity Offers a Thin Shield in NJ

February 15, 2009

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Parental immunity shields a parent from liability for negligent supervision but not for willful or wanton failure to supervise. Yet, even where negligent supervision is claimed, the immunity will only apply where the parent’s conduct implicates customary child-care issues or a legitimate exercise of parental authority or supervision.
The distinction was recently addressed by a New Jersey Appellate Court in <i>Thorpe v. Wiggan</i>. The case involved the tragic death of a four year old child who was left in a smoke filled car strapped in his car seat, with no means of escape when the car became engulfed in fire. The father, who suffered significant burns over his body, gave two conflicting statements about the events that led to his son’s death. In the version accepted for purposes of an <i>in limine</i> motion, the father described leaving his son in the car while he got out to inspect the source of the smoke. When the car burst into flames, he was unable to get his son out. The court reasoned that the father was not immune from negligence in this case where the father’s actions had nothing to do with a parent’s “unique philosophy of child-rearing” or the parent’s care for his child’s physical, moral, emotional, and intellectual growth. It simply had to do with a parent who failed to remove his son from the car before the fire erupted.
Thanks to Denise Ricci for her contribution.
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