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Negligence: When Does An Accident Create Legal Liability?

Jul 3, 2008
The law in Pennsylvania has special provisions about when children can be held responsible for their negligence (carelessness resulting in harm to another or themselves). Under certain circumstances, children are held incapable of negligence and, in others, they have to take legal responsibility for their careless acts.

A special rule applies when someone attempts to sue a child for negligence and when someone tries to defend a negligence lawsuit brought on behalf of an injured child by claiming that the child was guilty of negligence that contributed to causing the child's injuries (contributory negligence). The rule is age-based and the rationale behind it is that, below a certain age, children should be assumed to be incapable of guarding against danger, but as children get older, they are capable of being more careful.

Pennsylvania law conclusively presumes that a child under 7 years old is incapable of negligence. So, a child under the age of 7 cannot be held legally liable for negligent acts and someone defending a case brought by an injured child under the age of 7 cannot defend the case using an argument that the child was guilty of contributory negligence.

At age 14, children are presumed to be capable of negligence and can be held liable for the actions unless it can be proven that, for some reason, such as lack of intelligence or experience, it would unfair to hold a child liable.

Children between the ages of 7 and 14 must be looked at on a case-by-case basis to determine whether or not they exercised care consistent with an average child of the same age, intelligence and experience. Between the ages of 7 and 14, as a child gets older, it is more likely that he or she will be held responsible for negligence.

The law does not judge children by adult standards, such that even a 15, 16 or 17 year old will not be expected to exercise the care of an adult because children of such ages do not have the experience and wisdom of adults. Instead, children are required to exercise the care of an average child of the same age, intelligence and experience, and will be held negligent only if their conduct falls below that standard.

In Pennsylvania, children are considered adults at age 18 and, at that time, can be held liable for negligence or contributory negligence. However, prior to age 18, these special rules must be applied to determine whether or not a child can be held responsible for careless actions.
About the Author
Tim Rayne is the author of numerous publications on Personal Injury Law and is a graduate of the Temple University Beasley School of Law's Master's in Trial Advocacy Program. Tim can be reached at http://www.macelree.com/traynelaw.
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