Suing parents for child's violent acts is difficult
April 11, 2014 11:58 PM
Suspect Alex Hribal is escorted by sheriff deputies after his arraignment in the stabbing of students at Franklin Regional High School.
John Heller / Post - Gazette
Harold Hribal, father of the suspect (center) and FBI agents enter the family's house.
By Kim Lyons / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When a child is accused of committing a crime, attention often turns to the parents.
While the impulse to find someone to blame is understandable, experts say there is a fairly high threshold for victims to successfully sue the parents of an underage assailant.
Under Pennsylvania law, parents of a child found guilty of a "tortious" or wrongful act that causes injury to another person are liable for $1,000 per person injured, with a $2,500 limit per incident, regardless of the number of people injured.
That is, unless it can be shown that the parents had knowledge of a child's dangerous propensity and were able to control the child but failed to act to prevent the child from committing violence. Then, the amount sought in a lawsuit could be much higher and include restitution for such things as medical expenses and pain and suffering.
"And it's not enough to know there is a risk, it has to be an appreciation that there is an unreasonable risk of harm, and have to be able to show the parents had the ability to control the person," said Bryan Neft, an attorney with Downtown law firm Pietragallo Gordon Alfano Bosick & Raspanti.
"If they are living in fear of the child, they may not have that control."
There is still much that is not known about the attack earlier this week at Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville. Alex Hribal, 16, has been charged with attempted homicide and aggravated assault in a knife attack at the school Wednesday that left 22 people injured, four of them critically. Police say Alex used two 8-inch knives in the attack.
His attorney, Patrick Thomassey, has described the family as "like Ozzie and Harriet," a reference to the TV show from the 1950s and 1960s that showed a close, happy family.
Mr. Neft said there is considerable case law showing when parents have been held responsible for their children's crimes. Following the Columbine High School killings in Colorado in April 1999, most of the families of the victims of gunmen Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris settled lawsuits against the boys' parents, taking part in a $1.56 million settlement.
When such an attack occurs inside a school, there is the possibility the school district could be sued as well, said Carl Parise, criminal defense attorney at Downtown-based Carl Parise & Associates.
"A school is supposed to provide a safe environment," Mr. Parise said, "but a school district might say, 'We could never have predicted such an incident.' "
That was the case in the Columbine attacks, where the school district held that it could not have adequately prepared for what Klebold and Harris planned. A federal judge dismissed lawsuits filed against the district.
Various courts have ruled that school districts can be sued by victims of campus violence, but in Pennsylvania, the cap on awards in such a suit against a public school district is $250,000, Mr. Parise noted.
Perhaps the most notorious local case of parental liability in a child's crime involved Richard Baumhammers. Baumhammers was living in Mt. Lebanon in April 2000 when he went on a shooting rampage that left six people dead.
His parents were sued by his victims' families, who ended up receiving far less than the $31 million originally sought by attorneys, since only one of the parents' two insurance companies was found liable and then only for one payment.
Andrejs and Inese Baumhammers paid each family of a deceased victim about $130,000, for a total of $785,000.
"In that case, the argument was that they knew he was violent and knew he had guns," said Dennis Kusturiss, an attorney with Downtown law firm Vuono & Gray.
Insurance policies aren't always going to be found responsible to pay in such cases. In the Baumhammers case, the state Supreme Court found only one of the parents' insurance companies was responsible for a onetime $300,000 payment, not individual payments to families of the victims.
"Short of a parent who knows a kid is going to go out and commit a crime, it's very hard to prove liability," Mr. Kusturiss said.
In any situation where a child is charged with a crime, the facts are rarely cut-and-dried, but it's the details that determine whether parents are liable, Mr. Kusturiss said.
For example, if a minor child drinks alcohol at home with a parent's knowledge and later becomes involved a car accident that injures someone, a parent could be held responsible for the injuries to the victim, Mr. Kusturiss said.
But in many instances, it may not be possible for a parent to know when a child is planning to commit violence and even harder to prove the parents could have done anything to prevent it, said Mr. Neft.
"If the conduct comes out of the blue and the parents have never seen anything like it before, there will be a difficult time meeting that standard," he said.