Renko v. McLean, 77

Decision Date01 September 1996
Docket NumberNo. 77,77
Citation697 A.2d 468,346 Md. 464
PartiesNatasha RENKO v. Teresa Kaylor McLEAN. ,
CourtMaryland Court of Appeals

Gerard P. Uehlinger, Towson, for Appellant.

Hugh W. Farrell, Columbia, for Appellee.



In Warren v. Warren, 336 Md. 618, 650 A.2d 252 (1994), and Frye v. Frye, 305 Md. 542, 505 A.2d 826 (1986), this Court declined to create an exception to the parent-child immunity doctrine in motor tort cases based upon the existence of compulsory automobile liability insurance coverage. We are asked in this case to reexamine those decisions. Having done so, we shall reaffirm the vitality of the parent child-immunity doctrine in this State and affirm the judgment of the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County.


The facts of this case are brief and undisputed. On December 8, 1992, Natasha Renko suffered serious injuries when her biological mother, Teresa Kaylor McLean, negligently drove the car both women were occupying into the rear of another vehicle. At the time, Natasha Renko was seventeen years old.

On January 18, 1994, and following her eighteenth birthday, Renko filed a Complaint and Election of Jury Trial in the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County seeking damages in the amount of $100,000 for injuries she allegedly sustained in the December 8, 1992 automobile accident. The Complaint named Teresa McLean and her husband, Robert McLean, 1 as defendants, 2 here appellees.

Both Teresa and Robert McLean filed Motion[s] to Dismiss. Robert McLean subsequently filed an independent Motion for Summary Judgment. In a hearing on the motions, Renko beseeched the court to recognize an exception to the parent-child immunity doctrine and allow emancipated children to file actions against their parents for injuries sustained in motor vehicle accidents occurring in minority between fifteen and eighteen years of age. The court declined to do so and entered judgment in favor of the appellees.

Renko appealed the judgment entered in favor of her mother to the Court of Special Appeals. 3 We issued a writ of certiorari before consideration by the intermediate appellate court of the issues presented in this appeal.


For nearly seventy years, the parent-child tort immunity doctrine has been, with few exceptions, 4 a salient feature of Maryland law. See Schneider v. Schneider, 160 Md. 18, 152 A. 498 (1930). 5 It remains so today.

Once an absolute bar to tort actions between parents and their minor children, 6 the parent-child immunity doctrine grew out of an abiding belief that it served the compelling public interest in preserving, under normal circumstances, the internal harmony and integrity of the family unit and parental authority in the parent-child relationship. Warren v. Warren, 336 Md. 618, 622, 650 A.2d 252, 254; Smith v. Gross, 319 Md. 138, 145-46, 571 A.2d 1219, 1222 (1990); Frye, 305 Md. at 548, 505 A.2d at 829-30; Yost v. Yost, 172 Md. 128, 134, 190 A. 753, 756 (1937); Schneider, 160 Md. at 21-22, 152 A. at 499-500. In fact, the special relationship, with its reciprocal duties and obligations, that the minor child shares with his or her parents forms a major component of the foundation upon which the parent-child immunity doctrine is built--a relationship recognized both at common law 7 and by the General Assembly. 8 Other justifications offered for the rule include the prevention of fraud and collusion among family members to the detriment of thirdparties, and the threat that intrafamilial litigation will deplete family resources. See Warren, 336 Md. at 625, 650 A.2d at 255.

Nevertheless, the parent-child immunity doctrine has never stood static where historical experience and common sense dictated that it must yield. Indeed,

"[t]he parent[-]child immunity rule ... was a creature of the common law. It was judicially conceived, judicially adopted in Maryland, judicially changed in certain significant aspects, and otherwise judicially nurtured and applied in this jurisdiction[.]"

Frye, 305 Md. at 566, 505 A.2d at 839; see also n.4, supra. But our acknowledgment that circumstance sometimes severs the doctrine from its rationale and reason in no way detracts from our fundamental belief that "the parent-child immunity rule [is still] essential to the maintenance of discipline and to the stability of family harmony." Frye, 305 Md. at 561, 505 A.2d at 836; see also Warren, 336 Md. at 622-24, 650 A.2d at 254-55.

In Frye, supra, we exhaustively surveyed the creation and refinement of the parent-child immunity doctrine both in this State and across our Country. Despite the growing chorus of criticism surrounding the doctrine, 9 we determined that the parent-child relationship had changed little, if at all, in the ensuing years since our predecessors first recognized parent-child immunity. We thus concluded that "today's parent-child relationship, as recognized by this Court and the Legislature, furnishes no compelling reason to abrogate the rule." Id. at 561, 505 A.2d at 836; see also Warren, 336 Md. at 627-28, 650 A.2d at 256-57.


Renko nonetheless mounts a three-pronged attack upon the parent-child immunity doctrine. She asserts that (1) adult children should be allowed to maintain actions against their parents for injuries occurring in their minority; (2) no contemporary justification exists to apply the doctrine to the facts of the case sub judice in light of compulsory motor vehicle liability insurance; and (3) any such application is violative of Articles 19 and 24 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights and of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. We shall address each of these contentions in turn.


Renko correctly points out that we have permitted suits between parents and their minor children in limited circumstances. For instance, we have held that a minor child may maintain an action against a father's business partner for alleged negligence arising out of the operation of the partnership. Hatzinicolas v. Protopapas, 314 Md. 340, 550 A.2d 947 (1988). That decision was predicated upon our belief that the parent-child relationship, so important to the parent-child immunity rule, would remain inviolate in a suit against the father's business partner. Id. at 357, 550 A.2d at 947.

We further observed that (1) assuming the existence of a business liability insurance policy, the father had already paid his share of liability through his contribution to policy premium payments; or (2) it would otherwise be unrealistic to assume that the father did not take his partnership contribution obligation 10 10 into account when the familial decision was made to initiate a suit against his partner; and (3) although the ultimate decision to sue may impair or even destroy the relationship between the partners, that relationship is not the focus or concern of the parent-child immunity rule. Id. at 358, 550 A.2d at 956. Thus, despite the possible financial impact upon the father (and therefore, the family) by the successful prosecution of a suit against his business partner by a minor child, we concluded that "preservation of the family interests [justifying the parent-child immunity doctrine] does not require [the extension of the doctrine] to bar any recovery from a parent's partner." Id. at 357, 550 A.2d at 955.

Recognizing that reality sometimes belies the ideal of family life, our predecessors also deemed permissible a suit by a minor child against her father's estate for alleged injuries she sustained when, within the span of one week, the father both murdered the child's mother and committed suicide in the child's presence. Mahnke v. Moore, 197 Md. 61, 77 A.2d 923 (1951). The Court reasoned that

"[i]n these circumstances, there can be no basis for the contention that the daughter's suit against her father's estate would be contrary to public policy, for the simple reason that there is no home at all in which discipline and tranquility are to be preserved.... [W]hen ... the parent is guilty of acts which show complete abandonment of the parental relation, the rule giving him immunity from suit by the child, on the ground that discipline should be maintained in the home, cannot logically be applied, for when he is guilty of such acts he forfeits his parental authority and privileges, including his immunity from suit.... Justice demands that a minor child shall have a right of action against a parent for injuries resulting from cruel and inhuman treatment or for malicious and wanton wrongs."

Id. at 67-68, 77 A.2d at 926.

Renko contends that since this Court has already permitted children to maintain actions against their parents for acts occurring after the child reaches the age of majority, see Waltzinger v. Birsner, 212 Md. 107, 128 A.2d 617 (1957), we should take the logical step of allowing otherwise adult children to sue their parents for wrongful acts that occur during minority. We see no such logic. In fact, Renko's proffered solution to her particular dilemma would result in a de facto abrogation of the parent-child immunity doctrine in its entirety.

Maryland Code (1995 Repl.Vol., 1996 Supp.), § 5-201 OF THE COURTS & JUDICIAL PROCEEDINGS ARTICLE11 permits minors to bring tort actions for injuries sustained in minority at the hands of another within three years after reaching the age of majority. Thus, an injured minor child could simply wait until reaching the age of majority before initiating a suit that is otherwise barred in his or her infancy. In that circumstance, the parent-child immunity doctrine would serve not as a bar to actions between parent and child, but rather as an obstacle easily overcome with the passage of time. The looming specter of a lawsuit is as surely detrimental to family peace and harmony and parental authority as is the actual suit itself. Given this Court's long commitment to the parent-child immunity ...

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