By: Brian Mangan
[[Foreword: This is not legal advice, this is not legal advice, this is not legal advice. I hate having to say this, but society, you do it to me. This is not legal advice.]]
Gothamist linked an article today about a man in Wayne County, New York, who could be facing multiple charges of “endangering the welfare of a child” for locking four young children in a closet in his father-in-law’s home. That the man is facing charges is the primary headline, and for good reason — that he may be the one facing charges is shocking when you read the details of what happened.
Here’s the twist: According to the Times of Wayne County, the four kids who he locked in the closet had been *destroying* the house. And when I say destroying, I don’t mean crayons and other childish mischief:
“The damage in the home ranged from paint splattered walls and cupboards to broken fixtures and wall outlets that had been kicked in. There were entire walls that had to be taken down due to the amount of hammer strikes through the drywall…[The boys were allegedly] breaking 14 double pane windows and smashing to the floor level a new toilet and fixtures which Jesse and [his father-in-law Richard Muoio] had recently installed. Just about every wall and room in the home was either splattered with paint or received the harsh end of hammers.”
Click through to the original article for the startling pictures. Gothamist reports that the kids managed to cause approximately $40,000 in damages to the house and had painted the words “c*nt” and “bitch” on the walls. Allegedly, the children caused the damage in retaliation for the homeowner’s admonition that the children to stay out of the yard. The Wayne County man facing charges was the unlucky one who discovered all of this, and who detained the children (caught red-handed in the act) until the police arrived.
As interesting as the legal implications of his actions might be, I was more interested to learn the following, tucked away toward the bottom of the article:
“Under New York State law, a juvenile can only be held liable for up to $1500 in damages. Richard Muoio [the homeowner] could be awarded only a maximum of $6000 in restitution for all the damage done.”
Wait, what? That can’t be right, can it? A juvenile has hard cap to his or her liability? The assistant county attorney is quoted in the article as saying that the family court has the authority to hold the juveniles liable only up to that amount.
Things don’t usually simply not make sense, so I decided to look into it. The person who is cited in the article as the source of that information is the assistant county attorney of Wayne County. In short, she appears to be mostly correct — but as those with the law are familiar, it’s usually slightly more complicated than that.
A recent case explained one of the general rules: “at the end of a dispositional hearing, the [family] court may order restitution as a condition of probation in an amount representing a fair and reasonable cost to replace the property or repair the damage caused by the respondent, not, however, to exceed one thousand five hundred dollars.” In re Joel M., 240 A.D.2d 747 (App. Div. 2d Dept 1997)(quoting Family Court Act § 353.6).
In general, the law, despite its flaws, very rarely codifies rules which lead to gross injustices. Indeed, the above case interpreted the law in such a way as to avoid the victims not being compensated. In this case, the court held that the $1,500 cap on damages applied to each separate delinquent act which the prosecutor could have, in his discretion, charged the juvenile with separately. In Joel M., an Appellate Division case, the juvenile was ordered to pay $2,250 in restitution as a condition of his probation. Matter of K.L., a more recent case, confirmed this earlier ruling. 13 Misc. 3d 319 (Fam. Ct. Nassau Cty. 2006).
This does not necessarily answer the question of whether our poor homeowner will actually find a way to be compensated fully for his damages, as it is unlikely that these infant children have $40,000 lying around. So to me, the more important (and also more difficult to answer) question is whether the parents might have vicarious liability for their children’s crimes.
Oftentimes, the law needs to make difficult decisions. In a case like this, the parents of these rogue children might not be blameworthy in any way — but they can be, to some degree, more blameworthy than the innocent victim of the crime or tort. The same situation applies when awarding damages to someone who is injured by someone who is merely reckless or negligent — the person responsible for act might not be *bad* per se, but if someone has to suffer the loss, it is better that it is them than the completely innocent victim.
As for whether the parents of these children can be held liable, I am not yet sure. Some more recent cases have discussed the matter in brief, in instances not quite analogous to this one. The rule in the more recent cases (or at least part of it) is drawn from an old 1937 case, Steinberg v. Cauchois, 249 A.D. 518, an Appellate Division case which stated that as a general matter “the parent is not liable, merely by reason of his or her relationship, for the torts of the child.” The case listed five instances where a parent may be held liable, though none would seem to apply here. But the case is quite old.
I have to hang up the keyboard for tonight, but I will try to keep an eye on this story. The one thing that looks likely is if that family court statute applies (and the juveniles will almost certainly find themselves there) that fact alone will not prevent the homeowner from getting more than $1,500 in restitution from each child. Perhaps someone who is an expert in family law can further enlighten us in the comments.
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Brian Mangan is an attorney in New York City and, if this was not made perfectly clear in the foreword, is not a criminal attorney or family attorney, and is not providing legal advice here.
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