Warren v. Warren

Citation650 A.2d 252,336 Md. 618
Decision Date01 September 1994
Docket NumberNo. 4,4
PartiesElizabeth M. WARREN v. Albert Downes WARREN, III, a minor, etc. et al. ,
CourtCourt of Appeals of Maryland

Patricia McHugh Lambert (Smith, Somerville & Case, all on brief), Baltimore, for appellant.

John H. West, III (Manfred W. Leckszas, Ober, Kaler, Grimes & Shriver, all on brief), Baltimore, Jeffrey E. Thompson (Thompson & Thompson, all on brief), Centreville, for appellee.

Thomas V. Monahan, Jr., Susan T. Preston (Goodell, Devries, Leech & Gray, all on brief), Baltimore, Gary I. Strausberg, Randal D. Getz (Janet & Strausberg, all on brief), Baltimore, Paul D. Bekman, Carol J. Glover (Israelson, Salsbury, Clements & Bekman, all on brief), Baltimore, for amicus curiae.



In this case we are called upon to reexamine the status of the doctrine of parent-child tort immunity in Maryland in light of the large number of states recently abrogating it either altogether or in cases involving motor vehicle torts. This question is presented in the context of whether we should extend parent-child immunity to protect a stepparent from a personal injury claim filed by a stepchild injured in an automobile accident caused by the negligence of the stepparent. For the reasons set forth below, we reaffirm the viability of parent-child tort immunity but refuse both its extension to stepparents and its partial abrogation for motor vehicle torts.


Albert Downes Warren, III (Albert) was born to Christina Warren and Albert Downes Warren, Jr., on June 4, 1984. The Warrens divorced on January 3, 1986, and were granted joint custody of Albert. Albert was to reside permanently with Christina, while Mr. Warren would have liberal visitation rights. Mr. Warren married Elizabeth McNeill (Elizabeth) on January 18, 1991.

Albert was injured in an automobile accident on March 8, 1991, when Elizabeth was driving him home from a shopping trip and negligently allowed the vehicle she operated to cross the center line of the highway, striking a tree and a house on the opposite side of the road. As a result of the accident, Albert suffered numerous injuries, including irreversible brain damage and partial paralysis.

Elizabeth testified at a deposition that she neither considered Albert her child nor intended to perform any parental duties or to incur any parental obligations with regard to him. She participated in Albert's upbringing only minimally during his visits with Mr. Warren. All decisions as to Albert's financial support, education, upbringing, discipline, medical care, and social activities were made exclusively by Albert's biological parents.

When Albert's mother and father filed suit on behalf of Albert against Elizabeth in the Circuit Court for Queen Anne's County, seeking money damages for the injuries Albert suffered in the accident, Elizabeth asserted parental immunity as an affirmative defense. The parties stipulated that Elizabeth's negligence caused Albert's injuries and that the present value of the damages sustained by Albert was $1,750,000. The only issue before the trial court, therefore, was whether Elizabeth was entitled to parent-child immunity. Judge John W. Sause, Jr., concluded that immunity did not protect Elizabeth and entered judgment for Albert in the stipulated amount. Elizabeth noted a timely appeal to the Court of Special Appeals, and we issued a writ of certiorari prior to consideration of the case by the intermediate appellate court.

Three issues are presented for our review: (1) whether Maryland should follow the growing number of jurisdictions that have completely abrogated parent-child tort immunity; (2) whether the immunity should be partially abrogated in cases involving motor vehicle torts; and (3) if the doctrine is not abrogated, whether it should be extended to protect stepparents as well as biological parents. We answer all three questions in the negative.


Contending that parent-child tort immunity should be extended to stepparents, Elizabeth relies on decisions from other state courts. She also asserts that the public policy of promoting family harmony which supports the immunity applies equally to stepparents, whose status renders them a part of the child's family. Indeed, she argues, the immunity is necessary to protect the authority of the stepparent in the relationship with his or her spouse's child.

Albert and his parents, of course, take a contrary view. They assert that we should follow the growing number of jurisdictions abrogating parent-child immunity or limiting its application in motor tort cases. 1 Also, they argue that any extension of the immunity to stepparents would violate the public policy on which the immunity is based. Further, they assert that any decision to expand the immunity to include stepparents should be left to the General Assembly. Finally, they contend that even if this court were to expand the immunity, a stepparent must stand in loco parentis to acquire such immunity, and Elizabeth did not achieve that status under the facts of the instant case.


Parent-child tort immunity was first recognized in 1891 by the Supreme Court of Mississippi in Hewlett v. George, 68 Miss. 703, 9 So. 885 (1891). In Schneider v. Schneider, 160 Md. 18, 152 A. 498 (1930), this Court adopted the doctrine, holding that a mother was barred from recovery of damages against her son for injuries suffered by her in an automobile accident caused by his negligence. The immunity, we noted, not only prohibited a child's claim against his parent, but also prevented a parent from asserting a civil claim against his child. We fashioned a broad reciprocal immunity under which parents and children could not assert any claim for civil redress.

We reiterated the policy underlying the immunity recently in Frye v. Frye :

"Our primary concern with regard to matters involving the parent-child relationship was the protection of family integrity and harmony and the protection of parental discretion in the discipline and care of the child. We have steadfastly recognized the authority of parents and their need to fulfill the functions devolved upon them by that position. The parental status should be held inviolate so that there be no undue interference with the dependence of the minor unemancipated child on the parents for such judgment and care needed during the child's minority or with the dependence of the law on the parent for fulfillment of the necessary legal and social functions associated with the office of parent ...

"It is equally clear that this Court has had an abiding belief that the parent-child immunity rule enhances the public policy in that it subserves the repose of families and the best interests of society by preserving the peace and harmony of society and of the families composing society."

305 Md. 542, 551-52, 505 A.2d 826, 831 (1986) (emphasis added).

In Frye, a child was injured when his father negligently drove an automobile off the road and struck a culvert. The defendant moved to dismiss, and the trial court granted that motion, applying parent-child immunity. The child, through his mother, appealed that decision, attacking the immunity and contending that it should be completely abrogated.

Mrs. Frye claimed that our abrogation of interspousal immunity in Boblitz v. Boblitz, 296 Md. 242, 462 A.2d 506 (1983), dictated abrogation of parent-child immunity in negligence cases. We disagreed, noting that Boblitz rested principally on the changes that had taken place in the relationship between husband and wife in modern society. At common law, "a wife had no legal existence apart from her husband ... [and] a suit by her against her husband would not only have to include his name but would be tantamount to the husband suing himself." Frye, 305 Md. at 553, 505 A.2d at 832.

In contrast, we noted that the relationship between parent and child had not significantly changed:

"The relationship between husband and wife and the relationship between parent and child, although each relates to the family, are separate and distinct. Each has its own peculiar rights and obligations, benefits and responsibilities. The significant changes in the relationship of husband and wife, noted in Boblitz, deemed sufficient to render the interspousal immunity rule obsolete, have simply not occurred as to the parent-child relationship.

"The light of Boblitz shines but dimly on the parent-child immunity rule. It does not follow from the mere fact of our departure from the interspousal immunity rule that we should similarly depart from the parent-child immunity rule. Facially, the reasons for our departure from interspousal immunity, provide little support for a similar departure from parent-child immunity. '[T]he common law conception of unity of legal identity of husband and wife had no similar conception of unity of legal identity in the case of parent and minor child.' "

Frye, 305 Md. at 557-58, 505 A.2d at 834 (quoting Waltzinger v. Birsner, 212 Md. 107, 126, 128 A.2d 617, 627 (1957)).

We first traced the development of parent-child relationships since common law, including legislative determinations of the rights and obligations involved.

"The legislature had made it perfectly clear that it is 'the policy of this State to promote family stability [and] to preserve family unity....' § 4-401. The policy is evidenced not only by the statutes mentioned above [Maryland Code (1984), §§ 5-202 to -205, § 10-203 of the Family Law Article], which in concept follow the rights and duties of parents and minor children at the common law, but by other statutes codified in the Family Law Article dealing with a wide spectrum of domestic affairs under subtitles such as domestic violence, abused children, neglected children, single parents, battered spouses, paternity proceedings and adoption."

Id., 305 Md. at 560, 505 A.2d...

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