Squeglia v. Squeglia

Decision Date18 July 1995
Docket NumberNo. 15041,15041
Citation661 A.2d 1007,234 Conn. 259
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesRobert V. SQUEGLIA, Jr. v. Robert V. SQUEGLIA, Sr.

David R. Babbitz, with whom, on the brief, was Vincent R. Falcone, West Haven, for appellant (plaintiff).

David J. Crotta, Jr., with whom, on the brief, was Carolyn P. Gould, New Haven, for appellee (defendant).

Before CALLAHAN, BERDON, NORCOTT, KATZ and PALMER, JJ.

KATZ, Associate Justice.

The dispositive issue in this appeal is whether the doctrine of parental immunity bars an action by an unemancipated minor against his parent alleging strict liability pursuant to General Statutes § 22-357. 1 We conclude that it does.

The relevant facts are few and undisputed. The defendant, Robert V. Squeglia, Sr., owned a dog that attacked and injured the plaintiff, Robert V. Squeglia, Jr., in 1991. The plaintiff, who is the son of the defendant, was four years old at the time of the injury.

In October, 1991, the plaintiff brought this action 2 against the defendant pursuant to § 22-357, seeking damages for personal injuries. The defendant moved for summary judgment, claiming that the action was barred by the doctrine of parental immunity. The plaintiff argued, however, that although the doctrine of parental immunity generally bars actions in negligence, it does not bar an action in strict liability brought under § 22-357.

In its memorandum of decision on the defendant's motion for summary judgment, the trial court first noted that, with limited exceptions that have been strictly construed, the doctrine of parental immunity bars an unemancipated minor from bringing an action in tort against his or her parent. The court determined that the doctrine is not limited to actions alleging negligence and that the reasoning underlying the doctrine of parental immunity applies equally to actions alleging strict liability pursuant to § 22-357. Because there was no genuine issue of material fact regarding the parentage of the plaintiff or the ownership of the dog, the trial court concluded that the doctrine of parental immunity barred the plaintiff's action and granted the defendant's motion for summary judgment. 3

The plaintiff appealed from the judgment of the trial court to the Appellate Court, claiming that the trial court had improperly determined that the defendant was entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the basis of the doctrine of parental immunity. The Appellate Court affirmed the judgment of the trial court. Squeglia v. Squeglia, 34 Conn.App. 866, 644 A.2d 378 (1994). We granted certification to appeal from the judgment of the Appellate Court on the issue of whether the Appellate Court properly held that the doctrine of parental immunity shields a parent from an action for damages in strict liability pursuant to § 22-357 brought by that parent's unemancipated minor child. Squeglia v. Squeglia, 231 Conn. 920, 648 A.2d 165 (1994).

Although this court, and the Connecticut General Assembly, have articulated the parameters of the doctrine of parental immunity in Connecticut in the context of claims of negligence and, to a limited extent, intentional tort, we have not heretofore determined whether the doctrine bars an action in strict liability pursuant to § 22-357. Therefore, the case presents an issue of first impression for this court.

"Initially, we note that, upon the granting of certification ... the focus of our review is not the judgment of the trial court but the judgment of the Appellate Court." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Thompson & Peck, Inc. v. Harbor Marine Contracting Corp., 203 Conn. 123, 128, 523 A.2d 1266 (1987). In the present case, therefore, we must determine only whether the Appellate Court properly concluded that the doctrine of parental immunity barred the plaintiff's action and affirmed the trial court's decision granting summary judgment to the defendant. Because the issue of whether the Appellate Court properly interpreted the common law doctrine of parental immunity is a question of law our review is de novo. See Andover Ltd. Partnership I v. Board of Tax Review, 232 Conn. 392, 396, 655 A.2d 759 (1995) (statutory interpretation is question of law requiring de novo review).

The plaintiff first argues, on the basis of the cases that have concluded that the doctrine of parental immunity bars a claim of parental negligence by an unemancipated child; see Dubay v. Irish, 207 Conn. 518, 542 A.2d 711 (1988); Ooms v. Ooms, 164 Conn. 48, 316 A.2d 783 (1972); Begley v. Kohl & Madden Printing Ink Co., 157 Conn. 445, 254 A.2d 907 (1969); that, because the doctrine has never been extended to any other action in tort, it applies only to actions alleging negligence. We disagree.

The doctrine of parental immunity, first recognized in Hewlett v. George, 68 Miss. 703, 9 So. 885 (1891), overruled in part by Glaskox v. Glaskox, 614 So.2d 906 (Miss.1992), "forbid[s] 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." Hewlett v. George, supra at 711, 9 So. 885. The doctrine was not limited to negligence in Hewlett, and was subsequently interpreted to apply to any personal injury claim by a minor child against his or her parent. See McKelvey v. McKelvey, 111 Tenn. (3 Cases) 388, 77 S.W. 664 (1903) (doctrine of parental immunity bars child's tort action against parent for cruel and unusual treatment), overruled in part by Davis v. Davis, 657 S.W.2d 753 (Tenn.1983), and overruled in part by Broadwell v. Holmes, 871 S.W.2d 471 (Tenn.1994); Roller v. Roller, 37 Wash. 242, 79 P. 788 (1905) (doctrine of parental immunity bars child's tort action against father for sexual assault), overruled in part by Borst v. Borst, 41 Wash.2d 642, 251 P.2d 149 (1952).

In Mesite v. Kirchenstein, 109 Conn. 77, 145 A. 753 (1929), this court first recognized the doctrine and, citing to Hewlett v. George, supra, 68 Miss. at 711, 9 So. 885, stated that "[a]uthority in the parent to require obedience in the child is indispensable to the maintenance of unity in the family. Anything which undermines this authority, brings discord into the family, weakens its government and disturbs its peace, is an injury to society and to the State. Few things could bring about this unhappy condition more quickly or widen the breach between parent and child further than the bringing of an action at law for personal injuries by a minor child against the parent. Such unseemly family discord is injurious to the public welfare...." (Emphasis added.) Mesite v. Kirchenstein, supra at 84, 145 A. 753. The doctrine was not, therefore, initially limited in Connecticut to actions in negligence.

Because the doctrine of parental immunity is a judicially created doctrine, we may modify it. Dzenutis v. Dzenutis, 200 Conn. 290, 301, 512 A.2d 130 (1986). 4 We will create a new exception, however, only if, in light of the purpose of the doctrine, we determine that one is appropriate under the circumstances and accords with public policy considerations. Id.

We have modified the doctrine of parental immunity in several respects since Mesite. The modern doctrine in Connecticut only bars actions by minors who were unemancipated at the time of the alleged tortious conduct. See Wood v. Wood, 135 Conn. 280, 281, 63 A.2d 586 (1948). Furthermore, the doctrine does not bar an action by an unemancipated child against a parent for injuries received because of: (1) the negligent conduct of the parent at a business enterprise located outside of the home; Dzenutis v. Dzenutis, supra, 200 Conn. at 300, 512 A.2d 130; (2) the negligent operation of a motor vehicle, aircraft or waterborne vessel; GENERAL STATUTES § 52-572C; OR (3)5 sexual abuse, sexual assault or sexual exploitation. Henderson v. Woolley, 230 Conn. 472, 486, 644 A.2d 1303 (1994). Otherwise, the doctrine, as adopted in Mesite, remains unchanged, and it has never been limited to actions in negligence. See Dubay v. Irish, supra, 207 Conn. at 523, 542 A.2d 711 (parent is not liable civilly to his child for personal injury inflicted during child's minority); Begley v. Kohl & Madden Printing Ink Co., supra, 157 Conn. at 449-50, 254 A.2d 907.

The purpose of the doctrine is to preserve the integrity and unity of the family and to avoid unnecessarily injecting "the machinery of the state" into the day-to-day exercise of parental discretion. Dubay v. Irish, supra, 207 Conn. at 527-28, 542 A.2d 711. As we noted in Mesite v. Kirchenstein, supra, 109 Conn. at 84, 145 A. 753, there are few things more disruptive of familial harmony than a legal action by an unemancipated minor child against a parent. There is no reason to believe that an action in strict liability would be less disruptive to these interests than any other civil action for personal injuries brought by an unemancipated child against a parent. Therefore, as the Appellate Court noted, the purpose of the doctrine is equally applicable to an action alleging strict liability pursuant to § 22-357.

We have previously considered several factors when deciding whether to abrogate the doctrine. We have abrogated the doctrine in circumstances in which the parent had acted in a nonparental capacity; Dzenutis v. Dzenutis, supra, 200 Conn. at 300, 512 A.2d 130; and in which the heinous nature of the parent's misconduct had already destroyed familial harmony. Henderson v. Woolley, supra, 230 Conn. at 482, 644 A.2d 1303. In both Dzenutis and Henderson we evaluated whether the parent had breached a duty owed to the public at large; Henderson v. Woolley, supra, at 482-83, 644 A.2d 1303; Dzenutis v. Dzenutis, supra at 300, 512 A.2d 130; 6 and examined public policy considerations. Henderson v. Woolley, supra at 483, 644 A.2d 1303. 7 We also considered the likely availability of insurance coverage; Dzenutis v. Dzenutis, supra at 300, 512 A.2d 130; and whether the alleged act had occurred at...

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