Williamson v. Daniels

Decision Date07 October 1999
Docket NumberNo. 97-CA-01403-SCT.,97-CA-01403-SCT.
Citation748 So.2d 754
PartiesJohnny Lee WILLIAMSON, Jr. v. Mavis C. DANIELS.
CourtMississippi Supreme Court

Walter W. Teel, Jackson, Attorney for Appellant.

Harry R. Allen, Gulfport, Attorney for Appellee.

EN BANC.

MILLS, Justice, for the Court:

STATEMENT OF THE CASE

¶ 1. Johnny Lee Williamson, Jr. brought this suit in the Circuit Court of Harrison County, Mississippi, against Mavis C. Daniels seeking to recover damages for personal injuries suffered when he was shot in the chest by Daniels's 15 year-old son, Eddie Smith. Williamson's complaint alleges that Daniels was negligent in the supervision of her minor child and that her negligence was the proximate cause of his injuries. At the conclusion of the evidence introduced on behalf of the plaintiff below, the defendant moved the court for a directed verdict. The circuit court judge, finding that the acts of Eddie Smith constituted at least an independent, intervening cause of the plaintiff's injuries as related to any potential negligence on the part of the defendant, sustained the motion for a directed verdict, and judgment was accordingly entered dismissing the suit of the plaintiff. From that judgment, Williamson prosecutes this appeal asserting the following as error:

I. WHETHER THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN EXCLUDING EVIDENCE OF A YOUTH COURT CURFEW IMPOSED UPON DEFENDANT'S SON.
II. WHETHER THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN GRANTING A DIRECTED VERDICT IN FAVOR OF THE DEFENDANT.

STATEMENT OF FACTS

¶ 2. The injuries sustained by Williamson were inflicted on April 12, 1993, at which time Eddie Smith was fifteen years of age and living with his mother, Daniels. Sometime between 8:00 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. on the evening in question, Eddie answered the phone at his mother's house. The call was from Daniels's supervisor at GCCAA Head Start Agency, where Daniels works as teacher. While Daniels was on the phone in her room, Eddie left the house.

¶ 3. Williamson at this time was visiting his girlfriend, Trina Johnson, who lived a short distance down the street from Daniels. According to his testimony, the alarm on Johnson's car was activated, and Williamson left the house to investigate. The evidence suggests that Eddie and two other boys set off the alarm by throwing a ball at the car. When Williamson went outside, he was confronted by Eddie. Following a verbal exchange, Eddie produced a gun and shot Williamson, who was unarmed. Williamson sustained a gun shot wound to the chest which left him paralyzed from the waist down.

¶ 4. At trial, Daniels testified that on the night Williamson was shot, Eddie left the house without her knowledge and permission and that she was still on the phone with her supervisor when a neighbor came to the door to tell her that Eddie had shot someone. She further stated that she had no knowledge that Eddie possessed a handgun and that she had, at all times prior to this incident, specifically forbade the use and/or possession of such weapons. According to Daniels, she asked Eddie after the shooting where he had acquired the gun; he replied that he and another boy from the neighborhood had found it and kept it hidden in his room.

¶ 5. At the time of the shooting, Eddie was subject to a curfew prescribed by the youth court after he struck a boy at school. It required that Eddie be inside his house by 7:30 p.m. from Sunday through Thursday and by 10:00 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. Daniels testified that she made every effort to enforce this curfew and that she knew of only one other curfew violation prior to the night of the shooting. Williamson, to the contrary, testified that, although he was not personally acquainted with Eddie, he had repeatedly seen him out on the street after midnight.

¶ 6. Daniels admitted that Eddie had been in trouble a number of times prior to the assault on Williamson: He struck a boy at school rendering him unconscious. He had a fight with his uncle, during which he inflicted a minor wound upon his uncle's hand with a knife. He dropped out of school, complaining that the teachers were picking on him. A complaint was filed against Eddie for allegedly threatening to shoot a ten year old girl with a pellet gun, although Daniels testified without contradiction that she investigated the complaint and ascertained to her satisfaction that Eddie had not been the one who threatened the girl. There is also some evidence that Eddie left the house one night while his mother was sleeping and acted as the lookout for a robbery of the Hudson's Salvage Center in Gulfport; he was picked up by the police in conjunction therewith but was not prosecuted. Daniels testified that for each of the above offenses she attempted to discipline her son by grounding him, taking away his video games, and applying corporal punishment. She testified further that, when Eddie dropped out of school, she often took him to work with her and had him clean up around the school so that she could watch him. She also took Eddie to Gulf Coast Mental Health in Gulfport for a brief period of time for counseling.

DISCUSSION

I. WHETHER THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN EXCLUDING EVIDENCE OF A YOUTH COURT-IMPOSED CURFEW.

¶ 7. Williamson complains that the trial court erred in excluding evidence of the curfew order imposed against Eddie Smith by the youth court. He argues that the curfew order, which resulted from a fight Eddie had at school, was demonstrative of a violent and vicious nature and that Daniels, as she was present when the curfew was imposed, had notice of such. In this capacity, Williamson urges, the evidence was more probative than prejudicial and, therefore, should have been admitted.

¶ 8. This Court has long held that "[t]he admission or suppression of evidence is within the discretion of the trial judge and will not be reversed absent an abuse of that discretion." Sumrall v. Mississippi Power Co., 693 So.2d 359, 365 (Miss.1997) (quoting General Motors Corp. v. Jackson, 636 So.2d 310, 314 (Miss.1992)

; Walker v. Graham, 582 So.2d 431, 432 (Miss.1991)). The court below in considering whether evidence of the curfew order should be admitted, found the following:

[T]he curfew order is an issue that would be misleading to the jury unless they were instructed that the curfew was not binding upon Ms. Daniels as a legal obligation to enforce it ... The only potential value that these orders have would be for the purpose of giving notice to the parent that the child has been found to be delinquent by a judicial authority.

¶ 9. It is apparent that the trial judge balanced the potential probative value of the curfew order against its prejudicial effect under Mississippi Rule of Evidence 403, which states in part that "[a]lthough relevant, evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury." We find, as the trial court did, that the curfew order was of limited probative value in that it demonstrated only that Daniels was aware that her child had been adjudicated delinquent, a fact not seriously in dispute. At the same time, the evidence posed a substantial risk of misleading the jury in that it implied that Daniels owed a duty greater than that which all parents have to control their minor children; namely, that she had a legal duty to enforce the youth court's orders. We cannot say that the trial judge's decision to exclude the curfew order was an abuse of discretion. For the foregoing reasons, we find this assignment of error to be without merit.

II. WHETHER THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN GRANTING A DIRECTED VERDICT IN FAVOR OF APPELLEE.

¶ 10. Williamson also complains that the trial court erred in sustaining Daniels's motion for a directed verdict and dismissing his case. "This Court conducts a de novo review of motions for directed verdict. If the Court finds that the evidence favorable to the non-moving party and the reasonable inferences drawn therefrom present a question for the jury, the motion should not be granted." Little v. Bell, 719 So.2d 757, 760 (Miss.1998)(quoting Pace v. Financial Sec. Life of Mississippi, 608 So.2d 1135, 1138 (Miss.1992)

). Therefore, unless the evidence presents a question of fact over which reasonable jurors could disagree, a motion for directed verdict should be sustained. Id. (quoting Vines v. Windham, 606 So.2d 128, 131 (Miss.1992)).

¶ 11. Williamson's claim involves the question of the liability of parents for the intentional or malicious acts of their minor children. Mississippi has long adhered to the general rule that a parent will not be held liable for the tortious acts of its minor child on the mere ground of the parental relationship. Tatum v. Lance, 238 Miss. 156, 161, 117 So.2d 795, 797 (1960) (quoting Dempsey v. Frazier, 119 Miss. 1, 80 So. 341, 342 (1919)); Winn v. Haliday, 109 Miss. 691, 69 So. 685 (1915). There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. In addition to the common law cause of action for negligent supervision, the Mississippi Legislature, in keeping with the majority of states, has enacted statutes which make even non-negligent parents, in certain limited circumstances, liable for the malicious and willful acts of their children. See Miss.Code Ann. § 93-13-2 (1994) and Miss.Code Ann. § 43-21-619 (1993).

¶ 12. Williamson cites In the Interest of B.D., 720 So.2d 476 (Miss.1998), in support of his claim for recovery. In that case, this Court upheld the constitutionality of § 43-21-619 empowering youth courts with the discretion to impose damages or restitution against parents for the willful or malicious acts of their children regardless of parental negligence. B.D. at 481. Williamson's reliance on § 43-21-619, however, is misplaced as the statute is applicable only to the youth court. "It is the Legislature's intent that [restitution] be accomplished through the youth court instead of the circuit court. It is not this Court's place to negate such a decision...

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