Torts I, Pages 446–451

J.S. and M.S. v. R.T.H.

Supreme Court of New Jersey, 1998

Facts:

Plaintiffs were sexually abused by their neighbor, defendant's husband, for over a year until he was convicted and imprisoned.

Procedural History:

Trial court entered summary judgment on behalf of defendant. On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed and remanded for entry of an order granting plaintiffs extended discovery.

Issue:

Did defendant owe a duty to protect plaintiffs from her husband's abuse?

Plaintiff's Argument:

Defendant was negligent as she knew or should have known of her husband's propensities. As a result of her negligence, the girls suffered physical and emotional injury.

Defendant's Argument:

Defendant owed no duty to plaintiffs, and no alleged negligence was the proximate cause of any injuries they sustained.

Rules:

  • Page 449, Paragraph 2When the the empirical evidence and common experience indicate that one may have actual knowledge or special reason to know that his spouse is abusing or is likely to abuse an identifiable victim, it is considered reasonably foreseeable.

  • Bell: A duty to warn may exist based on particular knowledge or a special reason to know of the particular type of injury towards a reasonably identifiable victim.

    Example:

    Employers, drivers, caretakers (of prisoners/hospital patients), spouses

Reasoning:

Public policy has a strong interest in protecting children. A duty requires weighing the plaintiff's and the defendant's interests against each other. The girls' interests were much greater than the defendant's. To impose a duty, the duty must have a scope that is reasonable under the circumstances, based on the seriousness of the harm and how easy it is to prevent. A wife is in the unique position to be able to know many details of her husband's life that others would not. Defendant admitted to knowing about her husband's propensities and that the neighbors' girls were visiting her husband at their home almost every day unsupervised. Yet, defendant never confronted him about it or warned plaintiffs.

Holding:

Defendant could have had a duty to plaintiffs and their continued harm was a proximate cause of defendant's negligence. Affirmed.

Covenant Eyes – All the tools you need to build strong accountability.