Folks on the internet have been a bit outraged at a woman who sued her 8-year nephew:
Jennifer Connell claims the boy, Sean Tarala of Westport, acted unreasonable when he leaped into her arms, causing her to fall on the ground and break her wrist four years ago. This week Connell is asking a six-member Superior Court jury to find the boy liable for his actions.
She is seeking $127,000 from the boy, who she described as always being “very loving, sensitive,” toward her. The boy is the only defendant in the case.
It sounds kind of awful, suing a child for essentially hugging her too exuberantly, but this is actually a pretty routine legal matter.
The key to understanding what’s going on, and why Jennifer Connell is not actually the monster some people are making her out to be, is that while she is technically suing her nephew, the real target is the insurance company that holds the homeowner’s policy. The kid is just the defendant for legal purposes, since he’s the immediate cause of her injury, but he was almost certainly represented by an insurance company lawyer since they would be the ones paying. People do this all the time. It’s how you make insurance companies pay claims.
Much has been made over a few of the details:
In court Friday, the boy, now 12 years old, appeared confused as he sat with his father, Michael Tarala, in the Main Street courtroom.
The implication is that he was confused over why the aunt he loved was suing him, but I think it’s safe to say that any 12-year old would be confused by the formality of a courtroom. Heck, I find it all confusing whenever I’m at the courthouse.
The boy’s mother, Lisa Tarala, died last year.
That’s hard on the poor kid, but that’s not a reason to let the insurance company off the hook.
Jack Marshall, who should know better, has been particularly scathing about some parts of this:
The horrific actions of the 8-year-old has turned her life into a living hell, she told the jury. “I was at a party recently, and it was difficult to hold my hors d’oeuvre plate,” she said. Believe me, I know what a social handicap that can be.
Yeah, when you see “hors d’oeuvre” written out, it’s easy to make fun of, but here’s the thing: I can hold an hors d’oeuvre plate. Holding a plate with small bits of food isn’t a difficult feat of strength. But the point of her testimony is that she still can’t hold a plate steady even though the injury has had four years to heal. This isn’t just a temporary problem. It’s a permanent debilitating injury.
The extent of the injury is further indicated by another point that people are making fun of:
She changed her mind, she says, because her life was “turned upside down as a result of the injury.” “I live in Manhattan in a third-floor walk-up so it has been very difficult,” she said. “And we all know how crowded it is in Manhattan.”
It certainly is hard to walk up three flights of stairs on one’s hands.
As a 51-year-old guy with bad knees, I say fuck that ableist bullshit. Did you ever notice there are railings in most stairwells? Did you ever wonder why they’re there? It’s because some of us need to hold on with our hands to steady ourselves on the stairs, especially when carrying something that throws us off balance. That’s got to be a lot harder when your wrist is weakened by injury.
As it happens, the jury decided against her because of the way the jury was told to evaluate the kid’s behavior:
Quinnipiac University law professor William Dunlap said in civil cases like this one involving children, the jury is instructed to view the child as a child, and not by a “reasonable person” standard.
“When you’re talking about young children, you’re talking about a subjective standard – not an objective standard,” he said. “The child is not required to conform his behavior to the way a reasonable adult is expected to behave.”
If the defendant had been 18 at the time of the incident, he would have been expected to act like a “reasonable adult.”
“The jury is supposed to judge the child’s behavior by how a child of similar age, intelligence and experience is expected to behave,” he said.
So she took her chances when she visited an 8-year old. Fair enough. And New York personal injury lawyer Eric Turkewitz says he would not have taken the case:
Would I have taken such a case? No. Because the jury did what I expect a jury would do. But eviscerate her on the Internet for it? No. She took the advice of counsel. Bad judgment call perhaps, though the attorney defends the decision to move forward.
In other words, she went to a kid’s birthday party, got injured by accident, and then a lawyer advised her that she might be able to recover some of her medical costs (and probably lost wages) from the homeowner’s policy. So why not try it? I mean, other than because the internet outrage machine might decide to pick on you…
Someone at CNN interviewed her:
“This was meant to be a simple homeowners insurance case,” she said. “Connecticut law is such that I was advised by counsel that this is the way a suit is meant to be worded.”
Connell said that an individual, not an insurance company, had to be named as a defendant.
“I adore this child. I would never want to hurt him. He would never want to hurt me,” she told CNN.
The boy refers to Connell as his aunt, although she said he is the son of her cousin. The family remains close. Just a few weeks ago, Connell said, she took the boy out shopping for his Halloween costume.
“It’s amazing the power that the Internet has that something can go viral, completely out of context,” she said. “I’m certainly not trying to retire to some villa in the south of France. I’m simply trying to pay off my medical bills.”
And her lawyer thought this might work. Maybe he was just hoping to pressure the insurance company into kicking in a little more than the single dollar they had offered. Since she lost, maybe this wasn’t the best legal decision. Or maybe it was worth a try. If you suffered a debilitating injury in my house, I sure wouldn’t hold it against you if you tried to get some money out of my insurance company. That’s one of the reasons I have the policy.