A three-year-old child drowned under defendant-stepfather’s supervision. The child’s biological mother and father brought suit against defendant for wrongful death, alleging that defendant negligently supervised the child. Defendant claimed that he was shielded from liability because he stood in loco parentis to the child.
A person is immune to a negligent supervision suit when he or she stands in loco parentis to a child by virtue of assuming the status of a stepparent.
Three-year-old Ashley McLellan was the stepdaughter of Mr. Zellmer. One day, Ashley stayed home sick instead of going to daycare. Since Ms. Zellmer had to work, Ashley was placed under the supervision of Mr. Zellmer. He started a video for Ashley in her bedroom while he built a fire downstairs. He realized an hour later that Ashley was no longer in her room. He saw that the sliding glass door leading to the backyard was open. He found Ashley in the swimming pool, pulled her out, and called 911. Ashley died two days later. Ms. Zellmer and Ashley’s biological father, Mr. McLellan, filed a suit against Mr. Zellmer for wrongful death. They alleged several causes of action against Mr. Zellmer, including negligent supervision. Mr. Zellmer moved for summary judgment, claiming that he was shielded from liability because he stood in loco parentis to Ashley. Ms. Zellmer disputed Mr. Zellmer’s characterization of his relationship as a parent to Ashley. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Mr. Zellmer, and the court of appeals affirmed. Ms. Zellmer and Mr. McLellan appealed.
Whether a person is immune to a negligent supervision suit by standing in loco parentis to a child by virtue of assuming the status of a stepparent?
Yes, the parental immunity doctrine extends both to legal parents as it does to stepparents who stand in loco parentis. However, the jury, or fact-finder, must determine whether Mr. Zellmer actually stood in loco parentis to Ashley. Therefore, the order of summary judgment is reversed and the case is remanded for further proceedings.
Washington courts have consistently held that parents are not liable for negligence that happens in the performance of their parental responsibilities. Here, the court recognizes the parental immunity doctrine as it relates to negligent supervision actions. Parents are immune from negligent supervision suits, except for “willful or wanton misconduct” in supervising a child. This immunity applies both to legal parents as it does to stepparents who stand in loco parentis. However, a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether Zellmer actually stood in loco parentis to Ashley. Therefore, the case is reversed and remanded.