Monday, March 9, 2015

What Duty Does a Property Owner Owe to a Child on the Property?

In Lasley v. Hylton, 764 S.E.2d 88 (Va. 2014), The Supreme Court of Virginia examined the duty that a property owner owes a child guest when the parent of that child is also present. The Court concluded that a property owner cannot be liable for a child’s injuries sustained from an open and obvious danger when the parent is present, and the property owner assumed no special duty of supervision.

In Lasley, an eight (8) year old minor Plaintiff was injured while operating an all-terrain vehicle (“ATV”) at a cookout on Defendant’s property. The father of the minor Plaintiff was also at the cookout, and allowed the minor Plaintiff to ride the ATV despite a warning on the ATV stating that the ATV should not be operated by anyone under the age of twelve (12). Shortly after beginning to operate the ATV, the minor Plaintiff lost control, tipped the ATV, and was severely injured, including, but not limited to, a fractured shoulder. The minor Plaintiff, through his mother, sued Defendant for his negligence in allowing the minor Plaintiff to operate the ATV without advising or heeding to the warnings on the ATV.

Defendant argued at trial that he relied on the child’s parent’s judgment in determining whether the child was capable of driving the ATV. Defendant knew the child was eight (8) years old, but was never approached to supervise the minor Plaintiff. Plaintiff argued that Defendant failed to express the age warnings on the ATV to the child or the child’s father despite knowledge that the child was under twelve (12).

Ultimately, the Court concluded that the risks of riding an ATV were open and obvious to the child’s father; however, the father still permitted the child to ride the ATV. Crucial in this case was the Court’s conclusion that the Defendant fulfilled his duty to exercise reasonable care when he ensured that the child was under the supervision of the child’s own father, and that the child rode the ATV with his father’s permission. Essentially the Court held that a host will not breach his duty of reasonable care by allowing a child to participate in an activity with open and obvious risks when the child’s parent granted permission for the child to partake in that particular activity. Thus, judgment in favor of the Defendant was granted and upheld.

                While the holding in Lasley is not binding in Maryland, the Supreme Court of Virginia’s reasoning is supported by applicable Maryland premises liability law. Generally, there is no duty on the part of a property owner to protect an invitee from an open and obvious condition. The Lasley holding enforced a similar limited duty in relation to a minor child’s claims when the incident occurred under the dual supervision of the parent and the property owner.

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