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Md. high court addresses breadth of ‘parent-child immunity’ doctrine

ANNAPOLIS – Maryland’s top court grappled Friday with whether the prohibition on minor children suing their parents survives the child’s death, thus barring a youngster’s estate from suing a parent for wrongful death.

The Court of Appeals addressed the breadth of the “parent-child immunity” doctrine in hearing arguments in Timothy Heidenberg’s appeal of lower court decisions that his immunity from suit died when his 21-month-old son drowned in a swimming pool at the father’s house.

Heidenberg’s attorney, Lorraine Lawrence-Whittaker, called the bar on lawsuits by or on behalf of children against their parents critical to familial harmony, perhaps even more so after the child’s death because the immunity’s goal is “to take the family out of the courts and to allow them to heal.”

But counsel for Claudia Grier, the child’s mother, who is estranged from Heidenberg and is the estate’s personal representative, called the doctrine and its goals of preserving family harmony and parental authority irrelevant after a child’s death.

A truly harmonious family does not need to worry about lawsuits between parents and children, said Michael S. Warshaw, noting the parents’ relationship had soured before their son’s drowning.

“If there’s harmony, there won’t be a lawsuit,” said Warshaw, of Royston, Mueller, McLean & Reid LLP in Towson.

“There is no harmony in this relationship,” he added. “The doctrine has its limits and one of those limits is the death of a child. There is no longer a parent-child relationship.”

The appeal’s path to the high court began with Howard County Circuit Judge Timothy J. McCrone’s ruling in March 2018 permitting the estate of Michaelangelo Heidenberg to pursue a claim that the father’s negligence in not carefully watching his son led to the “wrongful death.”

The Court of Special Appeals upheld that pretrial decision, prompting Timothy Heidenberg’s successful request that the high court review the breadth of the prohibition on children suing their parents — and to do so before the potentially gut-wrenching wrongful death trial proceeds.

Lawrence-Whittaker, in pressing Heidenberg’s appeal, urged the high court to apply the parent-child immunity broadly, as the prevention of such familial lawsuits remains “critically important today” when children often do not live with both parents and are commonly a source of contention between the “warring” adults.

“You would be opening a Pandora’s box” of litigation, in which a child, at the urging of one parent, is the named plaintiff in a lawsuit against the other parent for negligent supervision that resulted in a common childhood injury, such as a chipped tooth or a gashed forehead, that often occurs even in the most attentive households, said Lawrence-Whittaker, of Lawrence Whittaker P.C. in Ellicott City.

“Parents are extremely imperfect,” she added. “Does the court really want to get involved?”

But Warshaw, pressing Grier’s case, urged the court to limit parent-child immunity. He called the doctrine largely a “vestige” of “romantic paternalism” from a bygone time when society’s laws and rules placed the father as the head of the household, when in reality mothers and children were being deprived of their rights.

The Court of Appeals is expected to render its decision by Aug. 31 in the case, Timothy Heidenberg v. Claudia Grier, No. 78, September Term 2018.


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