In Jerry Taylor v. Alton Trimble, No. B276732 (2017 WL 3187388 ) (Cal. Ct. App. July 27, 2017), the Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District considered the question of under what circumstances a plaintiff can sustain a negligent supervision claim against a homeowner for failure to supervise a minor guest who drowned during a party being hosted by the homeowner.
On June 1, 2014, defendant Alton Trimble hosted a gathering at his home. Attendees at the party included Tywanna Sanders and her five year old son, Jaylen Taylor. Neither knew how to swim. When Sanders first arrived, host Alton Trimble agreed to watch Jaylen in the “kiddie” or wading area of the pool. Jaylen’s grandfather, Donald Green (a Captain for the L.A. City Fire Department) arrived later and expressly told Trimble he would take over supervision of Jaylen. Green apparently allowed Jaylen to play in the main area of the pool, but at some point lost track of the child. Green then heard a woman scream “Where is the little boy?” as Green saw Jaylen floating underneath the water. Green jumped in and pulled Jaylen out, but efforts to resuscitate the boy were unfortunately unsuccessful.
Plaintiff Jerry Taylor, Jaylen’s father, subsequently brought suit against Trimble for general negligence for Trimble’s alleged failure to supervise Jaylen during the party, among other claims. Trimble moved for summary judgment which was granted by the trial court. Taylor then appealed.
On appeal, Taylor argued there were triable issues of material fact that Trimble was either 1) negligent in performing supervision of Jaylen, or 2) negligent in transferring Jaylen’s care to his grandfather. The Court of Appeal disagreed and upheld the trial court’s ruling that the undisputed facts showed Trimble was not negligent.
Generally, the Court argued, a homeowner is not responsible for supervising children on his or her property when the minor’s parents are present and expected to be supervising the child. It is normally the duty of a parent, or other adult having “primary supervisory control” over a minor, to ensure the minor would avoid open and obvious dangers – such as a swimming pool. If a host, however, has expressly or impliedly agreed to accept that responsibility, the host can be found negligent for failure to ensure the minor would avoid such dangers. This is because, by undertaking that responsibility, the host is charged with the duty of care to exercise judgment which a prudent person would exercise under similar circumstances. Failure to meet that standard constitutes negligence.
But as the Court also explained, that responsibility and duty of care can be transferred to another. Here the Court found that defendant Trimble was not being unreasonable by delegating the care of young Jaylen to his grandfather, a presumably responsible adult who was also a fireman. While not controlling authority, the Court found support for its reasoning from another appellate case in North Carolina referred to as Royal v. Armstrong (2000) 136 N.C.App. 465.
In Royal, an unsupervised eight year-old boy drowned at a pool party where he had been dropped off by his parents. Just after opening the pool for use by the children present, the host asked two able-bodied adults at the party to supervise the children – with one of those adults being a former lifeguard. Like here, the court considered the question of whether it was unreasonable for the host to transfer the duty of care to adults who were perfectly capable of rescuing a child in trouble. The court held it was not.
In Royal, and in the instant case, the courts posited there is no reason a party who agreed to take on the supervision of a child could not delegate that responsibility to another responsible adult, and found it would be improper to impose liability on the first party for the second party’s act of negligence.
For obvious reasons, hosts need to ensure that safety comes first when supervising minor children on their property. It is not axiomatic, though, that a host is automatically responsible for ensuring minors are not harmed by open and obvious dangerous conditions on their property. In order to establish a cause of action against a host for negligence under these circumstances, the plaintiff must show the host undertook a duty of care and breached it. Here, that duty of care was transferred to another.
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