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Aunt sues nephew for $127,000
01:44 - Source: WCBS

Editor’s Note: Danny Cevallos is a CNN Legal Analyst and a personal injury and criminal defense attorney practicing in Pennsylvania and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Follow him on Twitter @CevallosLaw. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.

Story highlights

Danny Cevallos: The case was about insurance all along, and insurance companies have no problem with that.

Cevallos: Some lawyers complain that insurance companies make money, then pay out as little as possible

But they serve an important purpose, he says

CNN  — 

A woman sued her 8-year-old nephew after the child knocked her to the ground in what was described as a “forceful greeting.” Jennifer Connell filed a lawsuit against the boy, who is now 12, seeking $127,000 in damages. Tuesday, jurors only took about 40 minutes to deliberate before deciding in the child’s favor. The case has people asking: What aunt would sue her own nephew? And, of course…

What lawyer would take that case?

Danny Cevallos

Actually, I might.

It depends on the facts. I know what you’re thinking: This is a shame. This is a family. This is a child. So what? Those facts are nothing new in the world of lawsuits.

People have been suing children since suing began. A famous 1950s case involved a woman who sued a 5-year-old for a prank gone awry. That case has become required reading for first-year law students. Now in fairness, that Washington state case involved a brat who waited for a woman to begin to sit down before he pulled the chair out from behind her, causing her to fall. That behavior merits a “time out” (though the 1950s equivalent of child discipline was probably a smidge more draconian).

In this modern Connecticut case of Aunt v. Nephew, the plaintiff appeared to be injured by way of over-hugging, which at least has good intentions. But the road to civil court is paved with good intentions.

Now, we don’t expect that an 8-year-old is going to have assets, or even a wallet to open, to pay a judgment. But that’s really no different than when an adult causes a car crash. It’s usually not the driver who actually, physically forks over money for injuries. Whether children or adults, nephews or strangers, in personal injury law it always comes down to one thing:

It’s all about insurance.

In the world of personal injury, an 8-year-old without insurance is no different than a 38-year-old without insurance, in terms of viability. Neither is going to have assets to pay for any serious medical injuries. Do you have $100,000 lying around under the couch for your aunt’s surgery right this minute? Even if you sell your Ford Pinto? See? No difference. But if the plaintiff’s attorney can find a nexus between the conduct and an insurance policy, then there’s a chance for your aunt to get her procedure, and for you to be off the hook for whatever you did.

Another way of looking at it is that if someone like Connell gets injured in a completely well-meaning accident, and has some serious or permanent impairment, then we agree that has a cost to her, right? Especially if she can’t work or engage in life activities. And if there is someone else responsible for that injury, and that someone’s actions are covered under an insurance policy, then at some point, that someone, or another someone paid for that coverage. Believe me, that insurance company had no complaints about accepting someone’s money to insure that activity.

Homeowners insurance is big business in this country. It covers personal liability and medical payments, which includes covering lawsuits against you for bodily injury to others resulting from an accident on your property, and caused by you or resident family members, as well as your legal fees. Not only is suing a child perfectly acceptable, the insurance industry anticipates exactly that situation, and is all too happy to sell a policy covering it.

Parents can be sued for the negligence of their child, too. Traditionally, parents were not vicariously or automatically liable for their child’s bad acts. But parents can be liable for failing to restrain their children if they know the child has dangerous tendencies.

In the interests of full disclosure: Obviously, I’m somewhat biased. Any attorney who goes up against insurance companies will complain that they make money when they sell policies and then pay out on as few as possible. But in fairness, insurance and insurance companies do serve an important purpose in our society: allowing people to pool resources and essentially spread their costs out, to protect against the unprotectable, and the unpredictable.

In this case, the homeowners policy worked exactly the way it was supposed to. The insurance company should have paid for the boy’s defense, and probably covered all the relatively low demand of $125,000. Even though the plaintiff lost, she had a fair opportunity to claim against a policy that supposedly covered her injury. Had she won, neither parent nor child would have had to raid the college fund; the insurance company would have done what the parent paid for it to do.

On closer look, that’s what happened in this case. Aunt and nephew have no bad blood. It was always about insurance, and a request that an insurance company pay out on a policy that the boy’s family paid for.

So would I take this case? Maybe. Maybe not. Obviously, the plaintiff lost, so there were some weaknesses in the case. In the world of damages, a broken wrist is somewhere close to the “Mendoza Line” of injuries — that’s a sports expression used to define the threshold of mediocrity. It’s surely debilitating, but there’s a lot worse, that’s for sure. The most important factor? There was coverage.

When insurance companies pay for the defense and the covered injury, they do exactly what they are supposed to do —including keeping the family peace. Still, that next family reunion might be a little awkward — maybe cordon the kids off in a bouncy-house next time.

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