Citation. J.S. v. R.T.H., 714 A.2d 924, 155 N.J. 330, 1998)
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Brief Fact Summary.
A neighbor sexually abused two young girls and admitted to the abuse. As part of a tort action, the parents of the girls brought suit against the wife of the abuser, claiming that her negligence was a cause of the abuse. The wife answered by claiming that she owed no duty to the girls and if she did her actions were not a proximate cause of their injuries.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
A spouse owes a duty to prevent sexual abuse by his or her spouse if they have actual knowledge or a special reason to know that the spouse is likely to abuse or is abusing an identifiable victim. Failure to act on this duty is a proximate cause of the minor’s injuries.
Two young girls, ages twelve and fifteen, spent considerable amounts of time with their neighbor at his horse barn. The neighbor sexually abused both girls for more than a year. After the neighbor’s conviction and imprisonment, the Plaintiffs, the girls, along with their parents (Plaintiffs), brought this action against the Defendants, the neighbor and his wife (Defendants), for damages. Plaintiffs claimed that the wife’s negligence rendered her liable for the girls’ injuries. The husband conceded liability. The wife denied she could be found negligent. The wife claimed she owed no duty to the Plaintiffs and that any negligence on her part was not the proximate cause of injuries sustained by the Plaintiffs. The trial court entered summary judgment on behalf of the Defendants. On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed the order and remanded, granting the Plaintiffs extended discovery. The Supreme Court of New Jersey granted Defendants’ petition for certification.
Did the wife owe Plaintiffs a duty to ensure they were not sexually abused by her husband, and if so, can her negligence be considered a proximate cause of their injuries?
Yes. Judgment of the Appellate Division affirmed.
* The imposition of a duty is a question of fairness and public policy. The court must balance several related factors, including the foreseeability and severity of the underlying risk of harm, the opportunity and ability to exercise care to prevent the harm, the relationships among the parties and the societal interest in the proposed solution. Foreseeability is based on defendant’s knowledge of the risk of injury, and may be either actual or constructive.
* Sexual abuse is a type of conduct that is difficult to identify, anticipate or predict. Whether or not sexual abuse committed by a husband is foreseeable to the wife depends on many factors, including previous committed offenses and age-inappropriate comments or behavior. These considerations call for a particularized foreseeability standard, examining empirical evidence and common knowledge to determine if a wife had actual knowledge or special reason to know her husband was abusing or likely to abuse an identifiable victim.
* The Court must also take into consideration the defendants’ interest in a stable marital relationship, supported in the common law doctrine of interspousal immunity. Even granting this consideration, it is clear that society and the Legislature have mandated that the protection of children from sexual abuse outweighs any marital interest. The Legislature’s imposition of N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.10, requiring any person who has cause to believe that a child has been subject to abuse to report such abuse; and “Megan’s Law,” N.J.S.A. 2C:7-1 to -11, requiring notification and registration requirements for sex offenders, exemplify this mandate. Based on these considerations, the Court finds that there is a compelling basis for the imposition of a duty on a wife whose husband poses a threat of sexually abusing children
* A second, related issue to consider is that of proximate causation. Proximate causation requires that liability only be applied when causes are so closely connected with the result and are significant enough to justify legal responsibility. In the present case, it seems clear that a wife’s failure to prevent or warn of her husband’s sexual abuse or propensity therefore, would result in the occurrence or continuation of the abuse.
* The Court holds that if a spouse has actual knowledge or special reason to know of a likelihood of her spouse engaging in sexual abuse against a particular person, this spouse has a duty to take reasonable steps to prevent or warn of the harm. Additionally, a breach of this duty constitutes a proximate cause of the resulting injury.
Issues involving foreseeability and proximate causation are often closely entwined with similar facts being used to prove or disprove each.