Moore v. Crumpton

Decision Date05 October 1982
Docket NumberNo. 76PA82,76PA82
Citation295 S.E.2d 436,306 N.C. 618
CourtNorth Carolina Supreme Court
PartiesAlice MOORE v. John C. CRUMPTON, Carol Crumpton, and John C. Crumpton, Jr.

Epting, Hackney & Long by W. Lunsford Long, Chapel Hill, for plaintiff-appellant.

Robert B. Glenn, Jr., and Newsom, Graham, Hedrick, Murray, Bryson, Kennon & Faison by James L. Newsom, Durham, for defendants-appellees.

MITCHELL, Justice.

The most significant issue presented by this case is whether a parent of an unemancipated minor child may be held liable in damages for failing to take reasonable steps to exercise control over the child's behavior. We conclude that a parent may be held liable in such situations, if the parent knows or should know that he or she has the ability and opportunity to control the child and knows or should know of the necessity for exercising such control.

The plaintiff brought this personal injury action against the defendant, John C. Crumpton, Jr. and his parents, the defendants John C. Crumpton and Carol Crumpton, alleging that John, Jr. had raped her during the early morning hours of 28 June 1978. On that date John, Jr. was 17 years old having been born on 19 October 1960. The plaintiff further alleged that the defendants John and Carol Crumpton knew or had reason to know that John, Jr. used drugs and was of a dangerous mental state and disposition which made it foreseeable that he would intentionally injure others unless reasonable steps were taken to supervise and control him. The plaintiff asserted that the defendants John C. Crumpton and Carol Crumpton had a legal duty to exercise reasonable care to control and supervise John, Jr. so as to prevent him from intentionally injuring others. She alleged that they failed to perform this duty, in that they failed to prevent John, Jr. from having access to and using illegal drugs and deadly weapons and failed to prevent him from going abroad alone at night after having used such drugs and after having gained possession of such deadly weapons. She further alleged that, as a proximate result of the negligence of the defendants John and Carol Crumpton, the defendant John C. Crumpton, Jr. broke into her home while under the influence of illegal drugs and repeatedly raped her by force and against her will after using a deadly weapon, a knife, to overcome her resistance.

At the time the trial court ruled upon these defendants' motion for summary judgment, the forecasts of evidence of the parties consisted of materials contained in their pleadings, supporting affidavits, depositions and exhibits. The forecasts of evidence of the parties established that John Crumpton, Jr. was one of five children of John and Carol Crumpton. John, Jr. was born with a club foot and was found during early childhood to have hypoglycemia, diabetes and ulcerative colitis. During his childhood and early adolescence, his family life was comfortable and secure. He went with his parents and grandparents on regular hunting, fishing and golfing activities as well as on frequent trips to the beach.

He began using marijuana and other controlled substances at an early age, however, and was a regular user of various controlled substances by the time he was thirteen years old. His parents were aware of his use of controlled substances and attempted by various methods to discourage his use of these illegal substances. John, Jr. continued the use of controlled substances, purchasing them at times with the allowance money his parents still gave him on an irregular basis and at times with money he earned from part-time jobs. During this period of his life, John, Jr. frequently argued with his parents and skipped school. He was once arrested for carrying a concealed knife. He also impregnated a young girl and apparently was hospitalized on one occasion for a drug overdose. Prior to the rape of the plaintiff, John, Jr. owned or was in possession of various hunting knives and guns given to him by his parents. Although his parents kept alcoholic beverages in the home, the pint of bourbon which John, Jr. drank on the night of the rape was apparently obtained at a friend's home.

During May of 1978, Carol Crumpton and John Crumpton separated and she moved to a new address. By agreement of the couple, Carol Crumpton took their three youngest children to live with her, and John Crumpton had custody of John, Jr. and one other child of the marriage. On 28 June 1978, Carol Crumpton was on vacation at the beach. Sometime prior to that date, John Crumpton completed plans for a vacation for himself and the other child in Hawaii. Before leaving home, he made arrangements for John, Jr. to visit with grandparents in Roxboro. Apparently, after his father left Chapel Hill on vacation, John, Jr. drank a large amount of whiskey, took some type of controlled substances, got "high" and broke into the plaintiff's home on 28 June 1978 and raped her.

The forecasts of evidence of the parties also tended to indicate that the defendants John and Carol Crumpton consulted a psychologist when John, Jr. was nine years old due to problems associated with his physical infirmities. They sought the help of school guidance counselors and various mental health professionals when John, Jr. was in junior high school and had developed academic and drug related problems. The parents made frequent attempts to discipline John, Jr. and to reason with him. They sent him to a private high school during the tenth grade in order to provide a change of environment, and he performed well there. They returned him to the private high school for the eleventh grade, but John, Jr. refused to stay and returned home early during that school year. John, Jr. and his parents went to numerous mental health professionals for counseling. In addition to this counseling, John, Jr. was treated by John A. Gorman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, and Landrum S. Tucker, M.D., a psychiatrist. Each of these men saw, diagnosed and treated John, Jr. on several occasions. Dr. Tucker saw John, Jr. on five occasions in January and February of 1978 and among other things reviewed his psychological testing. Both Dr. Gorman and Dr. Tucker indicated to the defendants John and Carol Crumpton that John, Jr. was not disposed toward violent or dangerous behavior and that he was not a person who should or could be involuntarily committed. Although both doctors indicated that John, Jr. would require continued treatment, he broke off his counseling with both of them. His parents could not or did not require him to return.

Based upon the foregoing forecasts of evidence by the parties, the trial court granted summary judgment for the defendants John and Carol Crumpton. The plaintiff appealed to the Court of Appeals which affirmed the judgment of the trial court. The plaintiff petitioned this Court for discretionary review which we allowed.

The plaintiff contends that the Court of Appeals erred when it concluded that:

parents cannot be held liable in negligence for the wrongful acts of their unemancipated children unless (1) there is an agency relationship; (2) the parent has directly aided, abetted, solicited, or encouraged the wrongful act; or (3) the parent has entrusted the child with a dangerous instrumentality, the use of which caused the injury.

It is necessary to our resolution of this issue that we review the law of this jurisdiction relative to the liability of parents for the torts of their unemancipated children. Having done so, we conclude that the Court of Appeals applied an incorrect rule of law.

As there is no controlling statute on the issue of the liability of the defendant parents in the present case, the common law controls. In North Carolina and in all other jurisdictions applying common law principles, it is a well-established doctrine that the mere fact of parenthood does not make individuals liable for the wrongful acts of their unemancipated minor children. Brittingham v. Stadiem, 151 N.C. 299, 66 S.E. 128 (1909). See, Annot. 54 A.L.R.3d 974 (1973). But while relationship alone does not make a parent liable for the wrongful acts of an unemancipated minor child, a parent who knows or should know of dangerous propensities of his child may be held liable for failing to exercise reasonable control over the child so as to prevent injury to others caused by these dangerous propensities. Lane v. Chatham, 251 N.C. 400, 111 S.E.2d 598 (1959).

We are aware that certain of our prior cases may be read as limiting a parent's liability for acts of the parent's unemancipated child to those situations in which the parent specifically approved the act of the child or in which the child acted strictly in the capacity of servant or agent for the parent, E.g., Hawes v. Haynes, 219 N.C. 535, 14 S.E.2d 503 (1941). Robertson v. Aldridge, 185 N.C. 292, 116 S.E. 742 (1923); Linville v. Nissen, 162 N.C. 95, 77 S.E. 1096 (1913); Brittingham v. Stadiem, 151 N.C. 299, 66 S.E. 128 (1909). To the extent that these and other cases may be construed as placing such limitations upon a parent's liability for the acts of the parent's unemancipated child, they are overruled.

In other cases we have pointed out that a parent also may be liable for the acts of an unemancipated child if the parent was independently negligent, "as in permitting the child to have access to some dangerous instrumentality." Smith v. Simpson, 260 N.C. 601, 609, 133 S.E.2d 474, 480 (1963) (quoting 3 Strong: N.C. Index, Parent and Child, § 7, p. 529, currently found in 10 Strong's N.C. Index 3d, Parent and Child, § 8, p. 39). The quoted words were intended by us only to serve as an example of one type of act for which a parent could be found independently negligent and not intended to describe the sole situation in which a parent could be held liable for independent negligence. A proper interpretation of the applicable rules would allow no such limitation upon the liability of parents for negligent failure to...

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