On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 173 N.J. Super. 204 (1980).
For affirmance -- Chief Justice Wilentz, and Justices Sullivan, Pashman, Schreiber, Handler and Pollock. For reversal -- Justice Clifford. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Pashman, J. Clifford, J., dissenting.
[86 NJ Page 312] In these cases we must determine the constitutionality of N.J.S.A. 18A:37-3,*fn1 which imposes vicarious liability without fault on the parents or guardian of any pupil who damages public school property. This statute is distinct from the general parental liability statute in New Jersey, which holds a parent, guardian or other person with legal custody of a child liable for the child's acts of vandalism against any property only when there is failure or neglect to exercise reasonable supervision and
control of the child's conduct. N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-15.*fn2 In contrast, as we hold today, the vicarious liability statute is applicable only to the parents of public school pupils. Consequently, the defendants challenge its validity on due process and equal protection grounds. We hold that N.J.S.A. 18A:37-3 is constitutional.
According to the allegations of the civil complaint filed by plaintiff Board of Education of Piscataway Township, defendants Jay Caffiero, Francis O'Donnell and Dean Martone broke into Piscataway High School on May 9, 1976. At the time, these defendants were enrolled as pupils in the Piscataway school system. Extensive damage was allegedly caused to the building and property inside by acts of the three defendants. In separate counts of the complaint, the defendants' acts are described as either negligent and careless or willful and malicious.
The complaint also named as defendants the parents of each of the three pupils, seeking recovery on the grounds of either negligent supervision of the children under N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-15 or vicarious liability under N.J.S.A. 18A:37-3. The Caffieros and the O'Donnells answered the complaint, denying essentially all the allegations and raising separate defenses including the unconstitutionality of the vicarious liability statute. Following
presentation of proofs by plaintiff, a default judgment in the amount of $28,540 was entered against the Martones for the damages, including investigatory and administrative costs, caused by the acts of the three young defendants.*fn3
To resolve the constitutional issue, plaintiff Board of Education moved for summary judgment against all the parents for any damages caused by their sons. The motion was submitted on the pleadings, briefs and oral arguments of the parties. Although it appears that the parents made certain admissions for purposes of the motion, the record does not indicate clearly what those admissions were. In effect, the trial court considered all factual questions unfavorably to the parents for the purpose of determining whether they would be liable to the school board under N.J.S.A. 18A:37-3. It held the statute unconstitutional as violative of due process, and therefore void. 159 N.J. Super. 347 (Law Div.1978).
The Board of Education made a motion to the Appellate Division for leave to appeal from the trial court's interlocutory order. The Appellate Division granted the motion and, before argument, consolidated the appeal with Board of Education of Roselle v. Monagas.
The facts of Roselle are similar to those of Piscataway. On December 14, 1975, a fire occurred at a school building owned by the plaintiff Board of Education. Subsequently, the Board instituted an action against defendant Angel Monagas, who was a pupil in the school system at the time of the fire, and his parents. The claim against the parents was based solely on N.J.S.A. 18A:37-3. The defendants filed an answer denying the allegations of the complaint and raising as a separate defense the unconstitutionality of the statute. The parents then moved for an order dismissing the claim against them. The trial court granted the motion for the reasons expressed by the trial court in the earlier Piscataway decision. The Board of Education
moved before the Appellate Division for leave to appeal. The motion was granted and the case consolidated with Piscataway.
A divided Appellate Division panel reversed both trial court orders. It held that the statute is constitutional and therefore the parents could be found vicariously liable under the statute for the damages to school property caused by their sons. 173 N.J. Super. 204 (1980).
The dissenting judge agreed with the parents that the statute is arbitrary and unreasonable and therefore violative of due process of law. He believed that vicarious liability without fault could be imposed only where a risk of harm has been created by the act or omission of the person held liable. He reasoned that imposition of liability based solely on the status of the defendants as parents was logically no different from imposition of liability based on some more tenuous relationship between the defendant and wrongdoer, such as grandparent, uncle, or witness to the unlawful acts. Id. at 214 (dissenting opinion).
After the adverse disposition by the Appellate Division, defendants filed a motion before this Court for leave to appeal, which we granted, 85 N.J. 133 (1980). We also permitted the Association for Children of New Jersey, the Commissioner of Education, and the New Jersey School Boards Association to participate as amici curiae.
N.J.S.A. 18A:37-3 provides:
The parents or guardian of any pupil who shall injure any school property shall be liable for damages for the amount of the injury to be collected by the board of education of the district in any court of competent jurisdiction, together with costs of suit.
The predecessor of this statute was enacted in 1867 as part of an act establishing the public school system. L. 1867, c. 179. The parental liability provision was included in a section concerning the discipline of pupils in the public schools. Id. at § 47. According to the amici, the statute was not relied upon by school boards during much of its existence. Nevertheless, the Legislature reenacted the statute in 1903, L. 1903 (2d Sp.Sess.), c. 1,
§ 120, and codified it as part of Title 18A by L. 1967, c. 271. School boards have recently turned to the statute to deter vandalism and ...