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Parent Liability For Children In ATV Accident

Can You Be Sued If Your Child Loans A Friend His ATV And The Friend Is Injured?

Thirteen-year-old Sara Hennarichs was driving a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle (“ATV”) when she lost control, ran into a tree, and died soon thereafter. Sara’s estate sued Roger and Karen Fina, who owned the ATV, and their son Nicolas, who let Sara drive it. The jury found the Finas liable for Sara’s death and the appellate court just upheld the case.

This development is important for parents to be aware of whether they live in Orlando, Daytona Beach, Jacksonville or anywhere else in Florida. As parents, we can be liable for the actions of our children. Depending on the circumstances, parents can be liable for the consequences that came from their child simply allowing a friend to drive their ATV.

The Finas bought the ATV when Nicolas was 11 or 12 years old. They had seen other kids Nicolas’s age riding their own ATVs, so they decided to buy Nicolas an ATV to ride on their 9½ acre property. Roger initially shopped at a dealership, where he saw an ATV containing a label entitled “WARNING” in large, bold print with an exclamation point.

Under that appeared a large red circle in which a red slash crossed through the large bold-printed words “UNDER 16”. The label then stated, “Operating this ATV if you are under the age of 16 increases your chance of severe injury or death. NEVER operate this ATV if you are under the age of 16.”

According to Roger, he asked the salesperson if it was the law that no one under sixteen could ride an ATV, and the salesperson responded that the labels were there to protect the manufacturer from liability. Without further investigating the warning, the Finas ultimately purchased two ATVs from a private individual. The ATVs carried the same warning label. Nicolas also saw the warning label, but he did not think it was important.

The ATVs also came with a manual which stated on its cover “WARNING” in large, bold print with an exclamation point, followed by “This ATV should not be ridden by anyone under 16 years of age.” Pages of the manual also showed a label stating, “WARNING” in large, bold print with an exclamation point, followed by “NEVER ride as a passenger. Passengers can cause a loss of control, resulting in SEVERE INJURY or DEATH.”

Although Roger acknowledged being given the manual when he purchased the ATV, he testified he could not remember going through the manual with Nicolas. Karen testified that she went over the manual with Nicolas, but she could not remember whether she discussed the warnings with him.

Contrary to the warnings, Roger trained Nicolas to operate the ATV by having Nicolas ride as a passenger with him, and by riding as a passenger himself when Nicolas was driving. When the Finas were satisfied that Nicolas was a safe driver, they allowed him to ride the ATV
unsupervised.

Roger initially testified that the only rules which he required Nicolas to follow were wearing a helmet and obtaining his parents’ permission if he was going to leave their property.

A year and a half later, when Nicolas was thirteen, he and his friend Matt Imbres began spending time with Sara Hennarichs and Alexa Majdalawi, all of whom were the same age as Nicolas. One day, Nicolas let Sara and Alexa drive his ATV around the neighborhood even though they did not have any training. Sara drove the ATV without incident.

A week later, Nicolas and Matt rode on Nicolas’s ATV to Alexa’s house, where Sara was spending the day. Alexa’s mother had been there earlier, but left to go shopping, leaving Alexa and Sara unsupervised. After the boys arrived, Matt asked Nicolas for the keys so he could ride the ATV.

Sara then asked if she could drive the ATV. Nicolas gave his helmet to Sara, who began driving the ATV with Matt riding as a passenger. Within a few minutes, Sara was approaching a curve when she lost control of the ATV and drove into a tree.

She was ejected from the ATV and hit the tree helmet first. Later that day, Sara died from her injuries.

Florida law states that parents may may encounter liability if the parent gives a child something that may become dangerous to others because of the child’s lack of age, judgment, or experience. The Finas argued that their son’s lack of age should not be considered because it is not illegal for children to drive ATVs in Florida.

However, the appellate court ruled that it was not the lack of age that decided the issue but that Nicolas’s lack of age contributed to his lack of judgement in operating the ATV and therefore the Finas were negligent in allowing Nicolas to sue the ATV.

The Finas also argued that they should not be liable under the previously described law because Nicolas was not operating the ATV at the time of the accident. However, the appellate court ruled that the law in question hold parents liable if the item in question may become dangerous to others and that there is no requirement that the child be operating or using the dangerous thing.

Another argument the Finas used was that the plaintiff failed to prove that Nicolas lacked the judgment to operate the ATV. However, the appellate court ruled that Nicolas’s age was enough evidence to prove incompetence.

Lastly, the Finas argued that they could not be liable because they told Nicolas not to let others drive the ATV and they didn’t know that Nicolas was going to let Sara drive the ATV. The appellate court ruled that the parents set an example of disregarding the warnings posted on the vehicle and therefore should be liable because it should have come as no surprise to them that Nicolas would have disregarded their rules too.

Parents should take one very important lesson away from this story. Even though it’s not illegal for children to do some things in Florida (like drive an ATV), if that thing could be dangerous and parents decide to allow their child to have one, then parents must take the strictest precautions to teach their children the safest ways to use the thing. In addition, parents should follow all manufacturer warnings extremely seriously as if they were the law, because in this case, the court held the parents a standard that the manufacturer (not the legislature) promulgated.


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