By LARRY O'DELL, Associated Press Writer
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – Adults have a legal duty to exercise reasonable care when they agree to supervise someone else's child, a divided Virginia Supreme Court said Thursday.
The court reached that conclusion in a 5-2 decision reinstating a $15 million wrongful death lawsuit filed by the father of a 14-year-old North Carolina girl who died in a car crash during a sleepover with a friend in the Richmond area in December 2004.
The case now goes back to Henrico County Circuit Court to determine whether Paul and Paula McDonough should be held accountable for the death of Jaimee Elizabeth Kellermann of Wake Forest, N.C.
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Mark J. Krudys, attorney for Jaimee's father Michael H. Kellermann, said the Supreme Court “memorialized what most parents already feel: that when they have a young child in their care, they should exercise caution. I would have frankly been very saddened if the court did not find there is such a duty.”
Julie Palmer, an attorney for the McDonoughs, said she was disappointed by the ruling. However, she said the lawsuit is in its early stages and the evidence “will be dramatically different” than the allegations. She added that “we are confident the defendants will be fully absolved of any responsibility.”
According to the complaint, the McDonoughs asked if Jaimee could spend the night with their daughter Becka. The Kellermanns agreed but said their daughter was not allowed to ride with young drivers – or, as Michael Kellermann put it: “No boys with cars.” Paula McDonough allegedly told Kellermann not to worry, she would take care of Jaimee.
That night, Paula McDonough dropped the girls off at the mall where they met up with another girl and two boys, including 17-year-old Nathan DeFrank. After the group attended a movie, Becka called home and got her mother's permission for DeFrank to drive her and Jaimee home, according to the lawsuit.
Jaimee and the third girl did not want to go with DeFrank but were unable to get another ride. On the way home, according to the complaint, DeFrank drove “wildly” at up to 80 mph on winding two-lane road while Jaimee frantically text-messaged her father and a friend, saying she was afraid.
DeFrank lost control of the car and slammed into a tree. Jaimee died at a hospital the next morning.
Henrico County Circuit Judge Daniel T. Balfour dismissed the Kellermanns' lawsuit, agreeing with the McDonoughs that they had no legal duty to Jaimee.
The Supreme Court said that if it too agreed with the McDonoughs, “such holding would yield absurd results.” For example, Chief Justice Leroy R. Hassell Sr. wrote in the majority opinion, an adult who agreed to supervise a group of 4-year-olds could allow them to play on a busy street or play with loaded guns without being subject to liability.
However, Justice Lawrence Koontz wrote in a dissenting opinion that the majority went too far in saying host parents could be held responsible for the criminal acts of a third party. Justice Cynthia Kinser also dissented.