Skinner v. Whitley

Citation189 S.E.2d 230,281 N.C. 476
Decision Date16 June 1972
Docket NumberNo. 97,97
CourtNorth Carolina Supreme Court
PartiesBobby L. SKINNER, Administrator of the Estates of Beverly Kay Skinner, Deceased, and Sandra Gail Skinner, Deceased, v. John L. WHITLEY, Administrator of the Estate of Clyde Wesley Skinner, Deceased.

Narron, Holdford & Babb, by Henry C. Babb, Jr., Wilson, for plaintiff appellant.

Lucas, Rand, Rose, Meyer, Jones & Orcutt, by Louis B. Meyer, Wilson, for defendant appellee.

HUSKINS, Justice:

May the administrator of an unemancipated minor child bring an action against the administrator of its father for damages for the wrongful death of such child caused by the ordinary negligence of the deceased father? Answer to this question determines this appeal.

A right of action for wrongful death did not exist at common law. Broadnax v. Broadnax, 160 N.C. 432, 76 S.E. 216 (1912). In North Carolina such right of action is conferred by statute and exists only by virtue of G.S. § 28--173 and G.S. § 28--174. Horney v. Meredith Swimming Pool Co., 267 N.C. 521, 148 S.E.2d 554 (1966); Graves v. Welborn, 260 N.C. 688, 133 S.E.2d 761 (1963). Under these statutes the personal representative of a deceased person has a right of action only when the death of his intestate is caused by the wrongful act, neglect or default of another, 'such as would, if the injured party had lived, have entitled him to an action for damages therefor.' G.S. § 28--173; Lewis v. Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Co., 243 N.C. 55, 89 S.E.2d 788 (1955).

In North Carolina and the great majority of other states, the rule is that 'an unemancipated minor child cannot maintain a tort action against his parent for personal injuries, even though the parent's liability is covered by liability insurance. This rule implements a public policy protecting family unity, domestic serenity, and parental discipline. . . . Upon the same theory, an overwhelming majority of jurisdictions likewise hold that neither a parent nor his personal representative can sue an unemancipated minor child for a personal tort. . . . 'The child's immunity is said to be reciprocal of the parent's immunity. " Gillikin v. Burbage, 263 N.C. 317, 139 S.E.2d 753 (1965).

Therefore, under the foregoing legal principles, the unemancipated minor daughters of Clyde Wesley Skinner, had they lived, could not have maintained an action against their father to recover damages for injuries caused by his ordinary negligence. Watson v. Nichols, 270 N.C 733, 155 S.E.2d 154 (1967); Redding v. Redding, 235 N.C. 638, 70 S.E.2d 676 (1952); Small v. Morrison, 185 N.C. 577, 118 S.E. 12, 31 A.L.R. 1135 (1923); Annot., 19 A.L.R.2d 423. Having died as a result of their injuries, their personal representative could not have maintained an action for their wrongful death against their father had he survived the accident. Capps v. Smith, 263 N.C. 120, 139 S.E.2d 19 (1964); Lewis v. Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Co., supra; Goldsmith v. Samet, 201 N.C. 574, 160 S.E. 835 (1931). Their father having also died as a result of the accident, the personal representative of these children cannot maintain this wrongful death action against their father's personal representative. Cox v. Shaw, 263 N.C. 361, 139 S.E.2d 676 (1965). This conclusion follows as a matter of law unless the reciprocal immunity rule between parent and unemancipated minor child is repudiated or modified in this jurisdiction.

Plaintiff concedes the law to be as above outlined but urges us to abandon the parent-child immunity doctrine in North Carolina and allow the minor children of this State 'to plead their wrongs at her altar' of justice. Plaintiff argues that the rationale for the immunity rule--the maintenance of family harmony and parental discipline--cannot be applied to the facts here since, by reason of the death of the daughters and their father, there no longer exists a parent-child or other family relationship that may be disturbed by this action. For this reason plaintiff contends the immunity doctrine has no application and, should we decline to abrogate the doctrine completely, we should refuse to apply it to the facts of this case.

The doctrine of parental immunity in this country originated with Hewlett v. George, 68 Miss. 703, 9 So. 885 (1891), in which it was held that a daughter could not sue the estate of her deceased mother for damages resulting from the wrongful commitment of the daughter to an insane asylum. The immunity rule was expressed by the Mississippi Court in the following language: '(S)o long as the parent is under obligation to care for, guide, and control, and the child is under reciprocal obligation to aid and comfort and obey, no such action as this can be maintained. The peace of society, and of the families composing society, and a sound public policy, designed to subserve the repose of families and the best interests of society, forbid to the minor child a right to appear in court in the assertion of a claim to civil redress for personal injuries suffered at the hands of the parent. The state, through its criminal laws, will give the minor child protection from parental violence and wrong-doing, and this is all the child can be heard to demand.'

Hewlett was followed by McKelvey v. McKelvey, 111 Tenn. 388, 77 S.W. 664 (1903), in which a child sued for damages for cruel and inhuman treatment allegedly inflicted upon her by her stepmother with the consent and approval of her father. It was held that such action could not be maintained. Two years later the Supreme Court of Washington held that a daughter could not sue her father for damages for raping her because 'there is no practical line of demarcation which can be drawn, for the same principle which would allow the action in the case of a heinous crime, like the one involved in this case, would allow an action to be brought for any other tort.' Roller v. Roller, 37 Wash. 242, 79 P. 788 (1905). Other states consistently adopted the rule announced in these cases, and in due course practically all the states of the Union had joined the parental immunity club. See Parental Immunity: Mississippi's Gift to the American Family, 7 Wake Forest L.Rev. 597 at 602, fn. 27, where cases are listed from more than forty states. See also cases collected at 19 A.L.R.2d 423 (1951).

An examination of cases applying the parental immunity doctrine reveals five policy reasons primarily relied on to support it: (1) disturbance of domestic tranquility, (2) danger of fraud and collusion, (3) depletion of the family exchequer, (4) the possibility of inheritance, by the parent, of the amount recovered in damages by the child, and (5) interference with parental care, discipline and control. However, domestic tranquility and the discipline and control of the family's children are the policy reasons most frequently offered.

Insofar as our research discloses, no state has totally abrogated parental immunity. However, a growing minority of states have reexamined and modified the doctrine. Such modifications are expressed as exceptions to the immunity rule. Some courts hold that where death has terminated the parent-child relation there is no longer any basis for applying the parental immunity rule. Dean v. Smith, 106 N.H. 314, 211 A.2d 410 (1965); Brennecke v. Kilpatrick, 336 S.W.2d 68 (Mo.1960); Hale v. Hale, 312 Ky. 867, 230 S.W.2d 610 (1950). Compare First Union Nat. Bank v. Hackney, 266 N.C. 17, 145 S.E.2d 352 (1965) (administrator of the wife's estate may sue the estate of the husband for damages for wrongful death even though the recovery will be distributed to the surviving minor children). There is no uniformity, however, with respect to this exception. Many jurisdictions still apply the immunity rule even though the parent or child may be dead. Durham v. Durham, 227 Miss. 76, 85 So.2d 807 (1956); Owens v. Auto Mut. Indemnity Co., 235 Ala. 9, 177 So. 133 (1937). Outrageous conduct on the part of the parent which invades the child's rights and brings discord into the family has been held sufficient to lift the immunity. Oldman v. Bartshe, 480 P.2d 99 (Wyo.1971); Hoffman v. Tracy, 67 Wash.2d 31, 406 P.2d 323 (1965); Mahnke v. Moore, 197 Md. 61, 77 A.2d 923 (1951).

Willful and intentional injury of the child has been held to terminate the parent-child relation and thus avoid application of the parental immunity rule. Rodebaugh v. Grand Trunk Western Railway Co., 4 Mich.App. 559, 145 N.W.2d 401 (1966); Cowgill v. Boock, 189 Or. 282, 218 P.2d 445 (1959); Nudd v. Matsoukas, 7 Ill.2d 608, 131 N.E.2d 525 (1956); Emery v. Emery, 45 Cal.2d 421, 289 P.2d 218 (1955); Aboussie v. Aboussie, 270 S.W.2d 636 (Tex.Civ.App. 1954); Wright v. Wright, 85 Ga.App. 721, 70 S.E.2d 152 (1952).

Where a dual relationship exists between parent and child, such as master and servant or carrier and passenger, the domestic relationship has been described as merely incidental, affording no immunity. Teramano v. Teramano, 6 Ohio St.2d 117, 216 N.E.2d 375 (1966); Trevarton v. Trevarton, 151 Colo. 418, 378 P.2d 640 (1963); Signs v. Signs, 156 Ohio St. 566, 103 N.E.2d 743 (1952); Borst v. Borst, 41 Wash.2d 642, 251 P.2d 149 (1952); Worrell v. Worrell, 174 Va. 11, 4 S.E.2d 343 (1939); Lusk v. Lusk, 113 W.Va. 17, 166 S.E. 538 (1932); Dunlap v. Dunlap, 84 N.H. 352, 150 A. 905 (1930).

Where the child is injured by the negligence of the parent while the parent is acting within the scope of his employment, it has been held that an infant may recover from the parent's employer on the principle of Respondeat superior. It is said that immunity to suit for tort is personal to the parent and cannot be asserted by the employer. Stapleton v. Stapleton, 85 Ga.App. 728, 70 S.E.2d 156 (1952); Foy v. Foy Electric Co., 231 N.C. 161, 56 S.E.2d 418 (1949); Wright v. Wright, 229 N.C. [281 N.C. 482] 503, 50 S.E.2d 540 (1948); Mi-Lady Cleaners v. McDaniel, 235 Ala. 469, 179 So. 908 (1938); O'Connor v. Benson Coal Co., 301 Mass. 145, 16 N.E.2d 636 ...

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