What is a Child’s Liability for Causing an Accident?

The majority of personal injury cases involve the actions of adults. There are some situations, such as bicycle accidents, in which the negligent party may be a child. How does British Columbia law address such situations? Do the courts hold minors to the same standards as adults when it comes to establishing liability?

Perilli v. Marlow: B.C. Jogger Sues 10-Year-Old Bicyclist Over Shoulder Injury

A recent judgment by the British Columbia Supreme Court helps to explain the answers to these questions. This case actually involves a minor bicyclist’s collision with an adult pedestrian. The accident occurred in 2014 in Kamloops, B.C., located about two hours north of Kelowna.

The plaintiff was jogging through a residential neighborhood along a familiar route. On the same street three young girls, including one of the defendants, were riding their bikes. The defendant was 10 years old. Her friends were riding their bikes on the sidewalk adjacent to the road. The defendant was riding along the street adjacent to the curb.

The plaintiff was jogging behind the three girls. He realized he would quickly overtake them, however, and moved to go around the defendant. But as he began his pass, the defendant “moved into his path.” This caused the plaintiff’s foot to strike the back wheel of the defendant’s bicycle. The plaintiff was unable to avoid a collision and he fell to the ground.

While you might not think that a collision between a grown man and a child’s bike would be that problematic, in fact, the plaintiff suffered a number of serious injuries. The plaintiff actually fell on his shoulder and required surgery as a consequence. The plaintiff subsequently filed suit against three defendants, the 10-year-old bicyclist and her two grandparents, who taught her how to use the bike, seeking compensation for his injuries.

Court Finds Child Only Required to Act “Reasonably,” Not Perfectly

In any accident case, the plaintiff must establish that the defendant owed him and breached a specific legal duty of care. As Justice Dev Dley, who heard this case, explained, the standard of care owed by someone operating a bicycle or motor vehicle “is not one of perfection,” but rather whether the defendant “acted as an ordinarily prudent person would act.” The “standard of care on a 10-year-old child is different than the standard attributable to an adult.”

Children who ride their bicycles on public streets are still required to follow the same rules of the road as adults. Here, the plaintiff alleged the defendant breached several statutory rules. Justice Dley ultimately found the evidence only supported one breach – the defendant failed to ride her bike “as near as practicable to right side of the road,” as required by the B.C. Motor Vehicle Act.

Proving a traffic violation is only the first step in establishing a breach of the duty of care. The next step, the Court explained, is to show that the breach “contributed to the accident in a way that attracts liability in negligence.” Here, again, the defendant’s age is a critical factor. In previous cases, B.C. judges have looked to “whether the child exercised the care to be expected from a child of similar age, intelligence and experience.” So while a judge would probably not hold a 5-year-old liable for causing an accident, a 10-year-old may be responsible depending on the judge’s assessment of these factors.

After reviewing the defendant’s testimony, Justice Dley concluded that she was “a polite and mature young person.” Even though there were “inconsistencies” between her testimony during discovery and the statements she made on her initial affidavit, the Court said that did not indicate “that she was untruthful or unreliable.” Again, the judge said one had to look at the “age and maturity of the witness” and their ability to “observe or recollect” past events.

The main discrepancy in the defendant’s testimony was with regard to how often she “looked behind her” to see where the plaintiff was in relation to her. Initially, the defendant said she looked back three times, but under cross-examination at discovery, she said it was only twice. The plaintiff suggested this was insufficient and the defendant “was not paying proper attention” to her surroundings. Justice Dley disagreed and said the defendant’s actions were reasonable under the circumstances. Following the second look-behind, she concluded the plaintiff was not going to try and pass her. While this conclusion was erroneous, the Court noted she “was not required to continually look behind her” and that to do so would have been more dangerous than what she actually did.

That said, the Court acknowledged the defendant’s actions were “not perfect,” but the law in B.C. does not require perfection. It only requires someone to act reasonably under the circumstances. The defendant here did so, the Court concluded, requiring dismissal of the plaintiff’s complaint.

Get Legal Help When Dealing With Complex Personal Injury Claims

It should be emphasized that a defendant cannot escape liability for an accident merely on account of his or her age. When a minor undertakes the responsibility of operating a bicycle on a public street, he or she is expected to understand and follow the rules of the road to the best of his or her ability. As the judgment above illustrates, judges are more likely to give a child the benefit of the doubt when it comes to a “momentary lapse” in judgment based on his or her relative youth and inexperience.

Another lesson from this case is that courts need to undertake highly fact-specific inquiries when assessing the maturity and credibility of child witnesses. This makes these types of personal injury claims more complex than the typical “fender bender” involving two adult drivers. While it may sound like overkill to hire a Vancouver ICBC lawyer to deal with an accident caused by a child, the truth is that you need experienced legal representation when it comes to dealing with these unique situations.

At the Preszler Law Firm, we help victims of all kinds of accidents–motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians–seek compensation for their injuries. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation. We work exclusively on contingency, so you owe us nothing until we collect money on your behalf.

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