Edward R. Weinstein, Esq.Edward R. Weinstein, Esq.

What Is Parental Immunity In New Jersey?

            Parental Immunity protects a parent from being sued for behavior that displays a genuine determination while raising one’s child.  Following please find this attorney’s interpretation of this aspect of child custody law here in New Jersey in a case where a father left a child behind in a burning car that resulted in the child’s death. 

            In Thorpe v. Wiggan, the New Jersey Appellate Division reviewed a matter that involved the death of a four year old boy, Joseph Wiggan, who tragically burned to death in a car driven by his father, Jasford Wiggan. The child’s mother, Hyacinth Thorpe, sued Jasford for negligence because he failed to take Joseph out of the car before the fire started. She appealed an order dated November 28, 2007 that dismissed her complaint according to the principle of parental immunity. When Jasford was driving the car, young Joseph was secure in the safety seat behind the driver’s seat. When Jasford noticed that smoke was coming out of the car, he got and walked behind the car, but could not place where the smoke was emitting from. He noticed that there was smoke inside the passenger compartment, and that suddenly the back was filled with smoke and fire. He then tried to open the car door to save Joseph but there was too much smoke and he was unsuccessful. Joseph received third-degree burns over 37 percent of is body. He did not survive his injuries.

            The trial court had held that Jasford’s choice to leave his son in the vehicle while he inspected it was an appropriate exercise of his discretion as a parent supervising his child, and that he was protected by parental immunity. Hyacinth appealed this decision, and the New Jersey Appellate Division held that a parent who leaves his or her child strapped into a car seat in a car filled with smoke, with no way to escape, is not entitled to parental immunity for the death of that child. This is because, Jasford’s actions did not concern traditional child-care issues or an appropriate exercise of parental authority or supervision. The New Jersey Appellate Division reversed the order of the trial court, and remanded the case for another trial.

            On June 17, 2004, at around 9:00 p.m., Jasford was driving his car with Joseph in the back, secured in a child safety seat. There were two different versions of the event that occurred after that. Jasford alleged to a State Police detective on October 6, 2005 that while he was driving west on Route 78 he saw smoke coming out of the car, heard two loud bangs, and started to smell smoke as well. He then pulled the car over to the shoulder, got out and walked over to the back to inspect the car. He alleged that we could not tell where the smoke was coming from, but knew there was smoke in the passenger compartment. Suddenly, there was a lot smoke and a fire in the back. He then opened the car door and tried to get his son, but was not able to. He stated that there was too much smoke and that it was too hot. Jasford stated that he did not remember what happened after that, but he did wind up in the hospital for burns.

            However, during a deposition on February 28, 2007, Jasford testified that a different set of events took place. At the deposition he alleged that he heard two loud bangs that he thought might be from underneath the car or from the trunk. After that he saw smoke inside of the car. He thought the smoke and thought it might be from a tire, so he opened opened his driver’s side window. Jasford alleged that the car then “blew up in flames.” He testified that he reached into the back to try and get his son out of the car seat but was not successful. He pulled the car over to the shoulder, got out of the car and ran to a bush which he rolled on to put out the fire that was on his body. Jasford alleged that when he got back to the car, Joseph was dead.

Jasford suffered third degrees on over thirty seven percent of his body and had to get a  prolonged treatment at St. Barnabas Medical Center. His treatment included several weeks in a medically induced coma. Investigators determined that the fire started underneath the driver’s seat which spread first to the center console then to the passenger and back seat areas. The investigators did not find any evidence that the fire was intentional, but the actual cause of the fire remained unknown.

Hyacinth admitted that she had no cause of action against Jasford for willful and wanton conduct under the depositions version of events. Her argument for relief was negligence under the the version of events Jasford told the State Police. Jasford defended himself with a motion in which he argued that his choice to leave Joseph in the vehicle, away from the danger of the highway, as he was inspecting the car, was an appropriate and legitimate exercise of his discretion and authority as a parent supervising his child, and as such he was entitled to parental immunity.

The judge hearing the motion agreed with Jasford and determined that under the facts known to him, Jasford had to make a decision about how to care for his son. The judge explained that Jasford had two choices as to what to do. Either remove the child from the car immediately, or inspect the car, the noises coming from the car, and the smoke coming out of and inside the car, all of which he was aware of, before taking his son out of the car. The motion judge stated that this was a situation where a parent must be be allowed to exercise their parental discretion, and make a choice, even if that choice is the wrong one. The court found that there was no evidence of wanton or willful conduct that would remove Jasford from the protection of parental immunity, as it appeared to the judge that this was an exercise of judgment on Jasford’s part.

Hyacinth appealed and alleged that Jasford’s choice to leave their son in the car was not related to providing for his physical and emotional needs, or fostering his well being and care. Instead, Hyacinth argued, Jasford was negligent in his supervision of their child because he failed to take him out of the car before the fire started.

The New Jersey Appellate Division explained that the doctrine of parental immunity bars liability in cases for negligent supervision, but not when when the failure to supervise his or her child was wanton or willful. This doctrine only applies in certain situations that relate to child care and the exercise of parental authority. As such, when wanton and willful conduct is not an issue, the immunity will only apply if the conduct at issue “implicates customary child care issues or a legitimate exercise of parental authority or supervision. This depends on the totality of circumstance in a case, and is subject to a fact-sensitive inquiry.

As there was no allegation of willful or wanton conduct in this case, the only question that remained to the New Jersey Appellate Division was whether, under the totality of the circumstances, Jasford’s decision to leave his son in the car related to either a legitimate exercise of parental supervision or discretion, or customary child care issues. The New Jersey Supreme Court has held that a legitimate child rearing decision falls within a range of activities which are a part of everyday household life, that should be exempted from negligence liability. With that said, the Supreme Court elaborated that “crossing a street, driving a car and a multitude of similar activities simply do not implicate legitimate child rearing issues and, therefore, fall outside the purview of the immunity doctrine.” In this case, the New Jersey Appellate Division applied the same analysis and determined that Jasford’s actions were not protected by parental immunity. Jasford left his four year old son in a car filled with smoke, with no reasonable means of escape, which exposed him to harm. This decision was not an issue of customary supervision, discipline or child care, because it had nothing to do with any philosophy of child rearing, nor was it related to the child’s moral, physical, intellectual or emotional growth. As such, the New Jersey Appellate Division reversed the decision of the motion judge and remanded the issue for a new trial where a jury would determine whether Jasford’s actions constituted negligence.

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