Court Rules on Parent Liability for Acts of Adult Son Living at Home
Parents of “boomerang kids” take note: the Tennessee Court of Appeals has noticed that the number of young adults ages 18 to 34 living with their parents climbed to over 32% in 2014. Read on to see what the Court determined in Riggs v. Wright and what this means for your potential liability for their actions.
Defendant Richard Wright, the adult son of Larry and Marianne Wright, was living at home with his parents when he attacked his neighbor on the street outside their homes causing him severe injuries. The neighbor, Allen Riggs, filed suit against the Wrights. Riggs alleged that the parents knew that their son had a history of violence and had a duty to exercise reasonable supervision and care to control him, which they breached when their son assaulted plaintiff.
The parents filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. They argued that they could not be held liable for the alleged intentional acts of their adult child. The trial court granted the motion, ruling that the parents owed no duty to the neighbor because the parent-adult child relationship did not give rise to liability of parents for the intentional acts of their children. Mr. Riggs appealed.
The Court began its analysis with the black letter law on negligence and noted that the key question was whether some special relationship existed between either the parents and the plaintiff or the parents and their child that places an affirmative duty on the parents to act for the protection of the plaintiff. The parents relied extensively on the case of Nichols v. Atnip, 844 S.W.2d 655 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1992).
The Nichols case involved a negligent entrustment claim against parents whose son was known to them to have a substance abuse problem and then killed someone in a DUI traffic accident. In that case, the Court of Appeals concluded that parents have no duty to supervise an adult child that would give rise to a negligent supervision claim because no parent-adult child special relationship was recognized by Tennessee law. In that case, the court observed that plaintiffs could not demonstrate that the parents had the power or means to control their adult son’s behavior.
Plaintiff countered that the court should look to the case of Biscan v. Brown, 160 S.W.3d 462 (Tenn. 2005). The Biscan case involved a situation where parents allowed minors to drink alcohol in their home and then one of the minors was involved in a car accident. The Court in that case emphasized foreseeability and also acknowledged the public policy considerations of the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of alternative conduct. In Biscan, the court concluded that public policy considerations favored imposing a duty in that situation and that the accident was a foreseeable consequence of the adult’s behavior.
Applying the law of both cases to these circumstances, the court concluded that no special relationship existed between the parents and the plaintiff so as to create a special duty to protect him from harm occurring adjacent to their property. The court noted the overriding policy concern of creating a duty where the son was not a minor and the incident occurred on public property. Recognizing a special relationship in this circumstance would be an “unreasonable burden.” Because the complaint failed to allege certain facts that might warrant the finding of a special relationship – for instance, that the parents had the ability to control the acts of their son or had the opportunity to prevent the harm – the court affirmed the dismissal.