Effie was walking along the street when he suddenly felt himself thrown through
the air. On landing, he turned around to see what had hit him. He was surprised
to find that it was a boy on a shiny new bike, with a helmet – to protect him!
Effie asked the boy for his name and phone number. On contacting the boy's parents,
he received a weak apology plus an explanation that the boy was inexperienced in
riding a bike. Effie received mild injuries and his clothes were damaged. Does he
have any claim for compensation against the boy's parents?
The mishna informs us (Bovo Kamo 87a) that if an adult injures
a child, he must pay his compensation. However, if the child (a boy under thirteen
or a girl under twelve) injures an adult, he is exempt from paying. The reason given
is that a minor is not considered responsible for his actions. Accordingly, even
when this child reaches adulthood and has money of his own, he bears no financial
liability towards his victim. However, Beis Din is empowered and encouraged
to punish children who harm others, whether physically or financially, in order
to deter them from future wrongdoing (Choshen Mishpot 349:5).
A child took a glowing coal, which he set alight and placed it on the neighbour's
haystack. According to the principle mentioned above, he does not have to pay for
the resultant damage to the haystack. Do his parents bear any liability for his
actions? Our Sages inform us (Bovo Kamo 59b) that if they gave him the glowing
coal or told him to take it, there is a liability to pay for the damage, which is
not enforceable in Beis Din (potur midinei odom v'chayov b'dinei
shomayim). However, if they gave him a flaming torch, Beis Din would
make them pay for the damage. The reason for the distinction is that a glowing coal
has a tendency to become extinguished before it can cause any damage. It was only
the child's action in blowing the coal that completed its destructive property.
On the other hand, a flaming torch is a fully active destructive agent. Any resultant
damage is regarded as the parents' deed, since they allowed an irresponsible person
to have access to the destructive agent.
A number of years ago, a group of children were caught scratching cars with nails.
The owners of the damaged cars asked Rav Yitzchok Silberstein whether they could
claim compensation from the parents of these children. The surprising answer they
received was that they were entitled to make such a claim. He based his ruling
on the gemoro mentioned above (see Choshen Mishpot 418:7). Even though
the damage was caused by minors, who are not responsible for their actions, their
parents are liable for irresponsibly having allowed them access to the harmful nails.
The pavement is intended for pedestrian use, young and old, fast and slow. Those
who walk on the pavement must take due care not to harm other pedestrians. Cyclists
are meant to use the road. Little children on their tricycles are accepted pavement
users. A child cyclist on the pavement poses a danger to pedestrians, especially
to the elderly and the infirm. If he does not know how to control the bike, he is
a real menace! Who is responsible for any damage that he causes? Since his parents
irresponsibly allowed him out on his bike, they can be compared to one who let a
child loose with a flame. Here too, they are considered as having caused the damage
through their own actions. They would be liable to compensate Effie for his losses.
Remember, responsible parents produce responsible children!