The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled the parents of a boy are not liable for a motorcycle accident that occurred after their son kicked a soccer ball out of the school grounds, overturning a lower court ruling that held the parents liable for the accident.
The ruling could be a bellwether for lawsuits regarding accidents or trouble caused by people without sufficient legal competency, including children, the mentally handicapped and elderly people with dementia.
The lower court, in Osaka, ordered them to pay ¥11.8 million in damages to the relatives of an elderly man who was injured in the accident.
“Parents are not liable for a child’s act resulting in injury or the death of a person by accident as long as it is usually considered not a dangerous act,” the court ruling said.
Parents and guardians are usually held responsible for most accidents caused by children and handicapped people according to the Civil Code, which stipulates their responsibility for providing adequate supervision.
The accident occurred in February 2004 in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture, when a man in his 80s on a motorcycle fell over while trying to avoid a ball that an 11-year-old boy had kicked out of a playground and onto the road.
The man became bed-ridden and died of pneumonia 18 months later. His family subsequently sued the boy and his parents under a Civil Code provision stipulating that parents are liable for damage caused to others by an act of their child or mentally handicapped dependent who has no ability to take responsibility for the act.
“The school playground is the only place in our neighborhood where children can play with a ball,” said the 53-year-old father, who was sued following the incident. “If parents are held responsible, there won’t be any place we can allow our kids to play,” he said.
“Do we really want our children to be holed up at home playing video games?” the father said.
But in this case and in a related case, the courts stipulated that the parents’ guidance was “insufficient.”
Those verdicts, handed down by the Osaka court and the Sendai District Court, pushed the boy’s parents to appeal to the Supreme Court.
Thursday’s ruling said the boy cannot be blamed, saying “children kicking a ball into a goal is a common practice” and thus falls outside the parents’ liability.
The ruling came as a relief to the entire family.
The boy, who has since become an adult, has been worried the incident would hamper his ability to find a job.
According to the Civil Code, children lack the means to pay compensation. Thus, civil lawsuits filed against children almost always result in the parents being held liable in the event redress is ordered.
In 2005, the Sendai District Court ordered the parents of two elementary school students to pay ¥60 million in compensation following the death of another student who died when a ball hit him in the chest while they were playing catch.
Other cases in which parents are held liable include bicycle accidents and bullying. But public dissent has been growing as people fear that the range of conduct is becoming unlimited.
“It’s unreasonable to hold the parents of the child responsible for behavior that cannot be considered acts of delinquency,” said Akihiko Misaka of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, who heads the group’s protection of children’s rights team.
This issue is not just limited to the liability of parents over their child’s actions.
In Aichi Prefecture, Central Japan Railway Co. has sued the family of an elderly man with dementia who walked onto railway tracks and was struck and killed by one of its trains in 2007.
JR Tokai demanded compensation for the service delay.
The lower and higher court rulings found his family failed to take care of the man, saying he left the house after they dozed off. Thursday’s ruling is likely to affect the ongoing JR Tokai lawsuit.