Family Law Keyed to Weisberg

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Topic /161
Hartman v. Hartman

Citation. Hartman v. Hartman, 821 S.W.2d 852, 1991 Mo. LEXIS 130 (Mo. Dec. 17, 1991)

Brief Fact Summary. Plaintiffs filed an action in the Circuit Court alleging their father and grandfather negligently maintained and operated a propane gas stove and propane tank causing them to explode, thereby injuring the children.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. The doctrine of parental immunity should be abrogated in favor of a reasonable parent standard in negligence suits brought by children against their parents.

Facts. Christine and Todd Hartman, by their mother and next friend, Sheila Hartman, filed an action in the Circuit Court alleging their father and grandfather negligently maintained and operated a propane gas stove and propane tank causing them to explode, thereby injuring the children.

Issue. Should the doctrine of parental immunity be applied to these facts?

Held. The doctrine of parental immunity is abrogated in its entirety.
Prior to 1891, no reported cases in the United States applied the doctrine of parental immunity. Its first application was a product of judicial policy making grounded in the need to preserve family harmony. Over the years this court has declined to apply the immunity to suits by emancipated minors, suits against noncustodial parents, and the estates of deceased parents because no threat to family harmony exists.

Re-examination of the doctrine reveals that the interest in avoiding disruption of family harmony exists in tension with the consequences of the sometimes brutal application of it, which bars an injured party’s right to recover from injuries. The doctrine causes the parent to owe a greater duty to the general public than to his or her own child. Based on this analysis the doctrine should be abrogated.

The remaining question is if the need to preserve parental prerogatives regarding child rearing justifies barring all suits for negligence between child and parent. Parents must be able to exercise a great degree of discretion in this area. Other jurisdictions have held that the immunity was abrogated except: 1) where the alleged negligent act involves an exercise of parental authority over the child; and 2) where the alleged negligent act involves an exercise of ordinary parental discretion with respect to the provision of food, clothing, housing, medical and dental services, and other care.

The problems with this approach include both interpretive difficulties and the fact that the exceptions give parents authority to act negligently so long as their conduct falls within one of the exceptions. California has adopted a reasonable parent standard, by which a plaintiff can recover only if the parent fails to meet the standards of care required of parents. This Court concludes that a reasonable parent standard should be adopted.

Discussion. The Court abrogates the doctrine of parental immunity and replaces it with a reasonable parent standard.