Magazine article Developments in Mental Health Law

Parents Not Liable for Child's Attack

Magazine article Developments in Mental Health Law

Parents Not Liable for Child's Attack

Article excerpt

Bell v. Hudgins, 232 Va.--, 3 VLR 1679 (1987).

After sixteen-year-old Littleton C. Hudgins, III, tried to rape Anne Hunter Bell, and severely injured her with a knife at the Mariner Hotel where she worked as a desk clerk, Bell sued, inter alia, the parents of the sixteen-year-old, for compensatory and punitive damages. The plaintiff said the parents knew about their son's emotional problems and outbursts of violence, but "the defendant parents failed to heed those warnings and clear indications of potential harm and allowed the child to remain free to move about the community at will." Bell contended the parents were negligent in not institutionalizing their child.

The trial court sustained a demurrer filed by the parents, stating that "[i]f public policy demands a parent to be held liable in these circumstances, it should be accomplished by an appropriate act of the General Assembly and not by judicial pronouncement."

Bell appealed to the Supreme Court of Virginia. Because Virginia courts generally do not impose liability on parents for the torts of their minor child (absent a principal-agent relationship), the plaintiff invited the Supreme Court to adopt the position of the Restatement (second) of Torts [section]316:

   A parent is under a duty to exercise
   reasonable care so to control his minor
   child as to prevent it from intentionally
   harming others or from so conducting
   itself as to create an unreasonable risk of
   bodily harm to them, if the parent
   (a) knows or has reason to know that he
   has the ability to control his child, and
   (b) knows or should know of the necessity
   and opportunity for exercising such
   control. … 
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