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Buono v. Scalia

March 29, 2004

KATHRYN BUONO, BY HER GUARDIAN AD LITEM VINCENT BUONO AND VINCENT BUONO INDIVIDUALLY, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
MICHAEL SCALIA AND LISA SCALIA, DEFENDANTS,
AND ALPHONSE SCALIA, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 358 N.J. Super. 210 (2003).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

Verniero, J., writing for a majority of the Court.

The Court considers whether the doctrine of parental immunity from suit, articulated in Foldi v. Jeffries, 93 N.J. 533 (1983), applies to the circumstances of this case.

At midday on June 17, 2000, the residents of a local street in Bayonne were hosting a block party. The block was closed to traffic and cars were removed from the street. About fourteen adults had gathered and several children were riding their bicycles, including Michael Scalia, age five and a half. Michael had learned to ride his twowheeled bicycle approximately two months earlier. Michael's father, Alphonse Scalia, was watching him from about five to eight feet away. Michael's mother was at home preparing food for the party. While Michael rode, another resident, Diane Buono, was standing within arms' length of her daughter, Katherine, age sixteen months. As Michael approached Katherine's position with the bike, his father yelled to him to"watch out," but Michael did not respond. Michael struck Katherine, causing both children to fall to the ground. Diane Buono was engaged in conversation and did not witness the accident nor hear the warning. Kathryn required an unspecified number of stitches.

Vincent Buono, Kathryn's father, sued Michael and his parents on behalf of himself and his daughter (collectively, plaintiff) claiming that they were negligent. Defendants moved for summary judgment. The trial court granted the motion, concluding that plaintiff had not overcome the rebuttable presumption that the child, Michael, was incapable of negligence. The trial court concluded also that the doctrine of parental immunity barred plaintiff's claims against Michael's parents because, pursuant to this Court's opinion in Foldi, there was no willful or wanton misconduct attributable to either of them.

The Appellate Division affirmed. 358 N.J. Super. 210 (2003). The panel traced the evolution of the parental immunity doctrine as it evolved through decisions that granted parents immunity from suit by their children and immunity from claims by other defendants against an injured child's parents for contribution. The panel recognized that this case might be the first instance of applying the doctrine to a situation involving a third-party claim, other than a claim from a joint tortfeastor, but it found that the expansion flowed naturally from the policies expressed by this Court in Foldi. Those policy considerations focused on respect for differences in parenting philosophies and for the degree to which parents understand the uniqueness of their own child's capabilities.

HELD: Parental immunity is proper on the narrow facts of this case. The Appellate Division's decision is affirmed.

1. New Jersey's narrow concept of parental immunity was explained by this Court in Foldi. There, the Court held that the parental immunity doctrine precludes liability in cases of negligent supervision, but not for a parent's willful or wanton failure to supervise his or her children. The Court stated further that the doctrine is applicable only in special situations that implicate customary child care issues or a legitimate exercise of parental authority or supervision. (Pp. 4 -- 6).

2. The Foldi Court reached its determination by evaluating two competing principles, still relevant today. The first tenet is that liability ordinarily should be imposed on those who wrongfully injure others. The second is that parents have a right to raise their children in accordance with their own beliefs without undue interference from the courts. The Foldi Court recognized that there are certain areas of activities within the family sphere involving parental discipline, care and control that must remain free from judicial intrusion. These include determining how much freedom to allow children. The Court recognized that every child is different and there is no one ideal formula for how much supervision a child should receive at a given age. The parent is clearly in the best position to know his or her child's limitations and capabilities. The Foldi Court determined that this principle of parental autonomy justified the retention of immunity in certain circumstances. (Pp. 6 -- 7).

3. In respect of the Court's determination in Foldi that immunity does not apply when the parent's conduct is willful or wanton, the Court defined such behavior as an intermediary position between simple negligence and the intentional infliction of harm. For behavior to fall within that definition, the Foldi Court explained that a parent must be conscious that injury will likely or probably result from his conduct, and with reckless indifference to the consequences, consciously and intentionally do some wrongful act or omit to discharge some duty which produces the injurious result. Here, the Court defines"recklessness" as conduct that involves a greater degree of fault than negligence but a lesser degree of fault than intentional wrongdoing. Recklessness is conduct involving a high degree of carelessness. It is the doing of something that involves a grave risk to others, whether the doer realizes it or not. The test is therefore objective and not subjective Ultimately, however, whether conduct implicates parental decision-making or whether it satisfies the willful or wanton exception will depend on the totality of circumstances in a given case, subject to a fact-sensitive analysis by the trial judge and, when warranted, by a jury. (Pp. 7 -- 9).

4. Unlike driving a motor vehicle or crossing a street, the conduct here falls within the narrow purview of parental philosophy involving a child's upbringing, entitling defendant to immunity as a matter of law. Michael's father determined that his child could ride a bike within the confines of the block party, in the father's presence and in the presence of other parents presumably supervising their own children. That was a valid exercise of parental decisionmaking entitled to judicial deference. Giving plaintiff all favorable factual inferences, there is no reasonable suggestion that Michael's father acted willfully, wantonly, or recklessly. His inattention, if any, was brief, making him at worst merely negligent. (Pp. 13 -- 14).

5. A contrary holding would lead to the incongruent result that Foldi would prevent suit against Kathryn's mother, but not against Michael's father, although both parents appear to have been exercising the same degree of supervision over their respective children. As expressed in Foldi, the conduct of each party here fell within the realm of activities that partake of the everyday exigencies of regular household existence that should be exempted from simple negligence liability. Unfortunately, there are many places where parents watch over their children in seemingly safe environments, but where mishaps and accidents occur. Forcing parents to defend against their negligent but otherwise honest errors of judgment in those settings risks opening the floodgates of intrusive litigation in precisely the manner that Foldi sought to avoid. (Pp. 14 -- 15).

6. The Court's holding is circumscribed, consistent with Foldi and post-Foldi decisions. Whether to apply the doctrine requires careful analysis on a case-by-case basis. If a parent's conduct does not implicate legitimate childrearing issues, but simply places a third party negligently at risk, there will be no immunity. Even in cases implicating legitimate child-rearing issues, there still will be no immunity if the circumstances reasonably suggest that the parent has acted willfully, wantonly, or recklessly. (Pp. 15 -- 20).

The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.

JUSTICE LONG, concurring in part and dissenting in part, joined by JUSTICES ZAZZALI and ALBIN, agrees with that part of the Court's decision that removes reckless parental conduct from the umbrella of protection afforded by the doctrine of parental immunity, but disagrees insofar as the Court has extended the doctrine to bar the claim of an innocent third-party victim injured by the acts of a child and his parents.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA and WALLACE join in JUSTICE VERNIERO's opinion. JUSTICE LONG filed a separate opinion, concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which JUSTICES ZAZZALI and ALBIN join.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Verniero

Argued November 17, 2003

This appeal implicates the doctrine of parental immunity articulated in Foldi v. Jeffries, 93 N.J. 533 (1983). The trial court and Appellate Division each concluded that, on the narrow facts presented, the parents in this case are immune from suit. We agree and affirm. We emphasize, however, that the doctrine's scope is limited. It applies only when the underlying conduct involves an exercise of parental authority or the provision of customary child care. Further, even when such conduct is evident, there would be no immunity for injury to the parent's child or to a third party if the circumstances reasonably suggest that the parent has acted willfully, wantonly, or recklessly as those terms are described in this opinion.

I.

These are the essential facts. At midday on June 17, 2000, the residents of a local street in Bayonne were hosting a block party. To accommodate that event, parked cars were removed from the street, which was closed to traffic. Within the enclosed area, about fourteen adults had gathered and several children were riding their bicycles, including Michael Scalia who was five-and-a-half years old. Michael had learned to ride his two wheel bike, without its training wheels, approximately two months earlier. Alphonse Scalia, the boy's father, was watching his son from an approximate distance of five to eight feet. Michael's mother was at the family home preparing food for the party.

While Michael rode, another resident, Diane Buono, was standing "within arm[']s length" of her daughter, Kathryn, who was then sixteen-months old. As Michael approached Kathryn's position, his father yelled to him, "watch out." Unfortunately, Michael did not respond and struck Kathryn with the bike, causing both children to fall to the ground. Engaged in conversation, Diane Buono neither witnessed the accident nor heard Alphonse Scalia shout the warning. As a result of the mishap, Kathryn required an unspecified number of stitches.

Vincent Buono, Kathryn's father, filed suit on behalf of himself and his daughter (collectively, plaintiff), claiming negligence on the part of Michael's parents (collectively, defendant) and Michael himself. Specifically, plaintiff asserted that Michael negligently had ridden his bike, that the Scalias negligently had supervised their son, and that such negligence had caused Kathryn's injuries. After discovery, defendant moved for summary judgment. The trial court granted that motion. It concluded that plaintiff had not overcome the rebuttable presumption that the child, Michael, was incapable of negligence.

Relying on Foldi, supra, 93 N.J. 533, the trial court also concluded that the doctrine of parental immunity barred plaintiff's claims against Michael's parents because there was no willful or wanton misconduct attributable to either of them.

Plaintiff appealed only the parental immunity issue, arguing that immunity did not apply because the injured child is not a child of a defendant parent, but rather a third party. The Appellate Division affirmed in a reported decision, upholding immunity in favor of defendant. Buono v. Scalia, 358 N.J. Super. 210 ...


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