The D.C. Court of Appeals ruled for the first time yesterday that children can sue their parents for negligence, calling the once commonly applied prohibition "an outdated notion based on faulty premises."
In a sharply divided 6-to-3 decision, the majority said that there may be some cases in which children cannot sue their parents, but that those decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis and that under most circumstances a child's right to sue should prevail.
In his 13-page majority opinion, Judge John A. Terry said the so-called doctrine of parental immunity was a "vestige of an era" when children and women were without legal rights, and that the practice has no place in a modern society.
In a sharply worded dissent, Judge Frank Q. Nebeker accused the majority of "tinkering with the already fragile family structure" and questioned whether the ruling would throw open the courthouse doors to all kinds of lawsuits by children against their parents, including claims such as wrongful birth or failure to provide special education.
"I cringe at this holding and what it can mean to our most precious national resource -- the family," wrote Nebeker. ". . . What we have wrought I am not sure, but of this I am certain -- it is an intruder into any family circle as much as any burglar or disease."
For years, the prohibition against children suing their parents was widely accepted across the country as a sound practice that fostered domestic tranquility and protected parental discipline and discretion. In the past 20 years, however, many states, including Virginia, have moved either to abolish the ban or severely modify it.
Yesterday's ruling came in a case filed by Cheryl T. Rousey against her mother, Doris R. Rousey, after her mother's insurance company refused to pay an accident claim for injuries suffered by the then-11-year-old girl during a 1983 car accident in which her mother was the driver.
When the mother told a lawyer that Geico, her insurance company, claimed that her policy did not cover any injuries to her family members, he suggested the daughter sue her mother and challenge the District's practice of parental immunity.
"What it came down to for the mother was that if she was in an accident with three kids in the car and her own kid, everybody would get paid by the insurance company except her own kid," said Aaron M. Levine, the girl's lawyer.
The majority decision reversed a lower court ruling dismissing the suit and sent the case back to D.C. Superior Court for trial. Although the Rousey case essentially involved an indirect claim against the mother's insurance company, the majority said it was not limiting its ruling to cases that involved parents who have liability insurance as some states have done.
"There can be no justification for fashioning different rules of law for the insured and the uninsured," Terry wrote for the majority. He was joined by Judges Julia Cooper Mack, Theodore R. Newman Jr., John M. Ferren, Judith W. Rogers and John M. Steadman. Judge James A. Belson and Chief Judge William C. Pryor also dissented.