On September 12, 2014, Minnesota Vikings running back and former NFL MVP Adrian Peterson was indicted on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child. The charges concern Peterson’s four-year-old son, whom he spanked with a switch. Peterson has claimed that he never intended to harm his son, and that the discipline was similar to what he received as a child. While a national debate has sprung up concerning child abuse, with celebrities including Charles Barkley and D.L. Hughely defending Peterson, he awaits an October 8 court date and charges that could result in up to two years of jail time and a $10,000 fine. Those are the criminal charges facing Peterson. But would his son be able to sue him in civil court for monetary damages as well?
For a long time, most states did not allow children to sue their parents for any reason. In 1891, a daughter tried to sue her mother for wrongfully committing her to an insane asylum. The Supreme Court of Mississippi threw out her case, finding that the very “peace of society, and of families composing society” depended on children not being permitted to sue their parents! Tennessee made a similar ruling a few years later, quoting the language from the Mississippi case. In 1905, the State of Washington dismissed the case of a daughter who was suing her father for raping her.
Most other states followed Mississippi’s example, and parent-child suits were banned in almost every state in the Union, including South Carolina. One commentator went so far as to say that parent-child suits were “abhorrent to the idea of family discipline which all nations, rude or civilized, have so steadily inculcated.” At about the same time, most states also forbid wives from suing their husbands for assault. The Maine Supreme Court found that the injured woman had “remedy enough” in the criminal courts, and could even, “as a last resort,” prosecute a suit for divorce.
Things began to change in the 1950’s. The courts began to allow suits in special circumstances, or when the parent’s conduct was so reckless or malicious that they could be found to have “abandoned the parental relationship.” Most of these cases focused on reckless or drunk driving, although the Maryland Supreme Court allowed a child to sue his father for mental distress after the father murdered the child’s mother.
These exceptions were only the beginning of a growing trend, and in 1980 South Carolina passed a statute permitting children to sue their parents for all injuries, no matter whether the parent was acting intentionally, recklessly, or only negligently. The South Carolina Supreme Court upheld this law, saying that the “family harmony” reasoning of the Mississippi Court was now almost “universally condemned.” A handful of holdouts remain, but the vast majority of states have now abolished parental immunity and allow children to sue parents for personal injuries. Unfortunately for Adrian Peterson, the State of Texas—where his two sons live—is one of the states that allows these suits.
What do you think? Should children be allowed to sue their parents in situations like this, or should parents have the right to discipline their children as they see fit? Are there any situations in which children should have the right to sue their parents? Let us know your thoughts on Facebook or Twitter.