Appeals Court Holds 13-Year-Old Child Responsible for His Own Burn Injuries

In a June 19 decision, the Georgia Court of Appeals awarded summary judgment to the defendants in a personal injury lawsuit arising from serious burn injuries suffered by a 13-year-old child. The Court of Appeals, reversing a trial judge’s earlier decision, said the child had assumed the risk of standing too close to the fire that caused his injuries. Despite the child’s age, the court said he was old enough to understand the potential risks and consequences of his actions.

Taylor v. McGraw

The child and his grandfather were attending a backyard marshmallow roast at the defendants’ home. The defendants ignited a wood-burning fire in a metal barrel. One of the defendants instructed his children to take some sawdust from a nearby shed and throw it into the fire. This caused the fire to flare up. Shortly thereafter, the adults left the children alone with the fire. The victim and two of the defendants’ children then proceeded to get more sawdust and throw it into the fire. This “made the fire shoot up,” according to one of the defendant’s children and burned the victim.

The child’s mother sued on the grounds that the defendants were negligent in allowing the children unsupervised access to the fire and the combustible sawdust in the shed. She argued the defendants should have realized—especially after demonstrating what would happen if sawdust was thrown into the fire—that the children might injure themselves. The defendants, in response, argued the victim was responsible for his own injuries because he got too close to the fire.

The trial court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on those grounds. The Court of Appeals reversed, finding that even if the defendants were negligent in failing to supervise the children, “the undisputed facts show as a matter of law that [the victim] assumed the risk of being burned when sawdust was thrown into the fire.”

Under Georgia law, a defendant is not liable in a tort action when the plaintiff’s own negligence is the “proximate cause” of his injuries. This includes cases where the plaintiff voluntarily assumes a risk and demonstrates a lack of care for his own safety. This rule can apply even when the victim is a child between the ages of 7 and 14, the appeals court explained, although “the circumstances of the case and the capacity of the particular child” will dictate whether he was capable of assuming the risk.

Based on the trial court’s record in this case—specifically, the testimony of the victim and the defendant’s children—the appeals court said there was no disputing the victim chose to stand next to the fire while the other children repeatedly threw sawdust into the flames. The appeals court said this demonstrated the victim had “actual and subjective knowledge” of the risks involved and that he “understood and appreciated” said risks. Ultimately, the victim acknowledged he simply wasn’t paying attention to the dangerous fire, and for that reason, the appeals court said the defendants were not liable for his injuries.

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