Zellmer v. Zellmer

164 Wash. 2d 147, 188 P.3d 497 (2008)



A factual inquiry into the stepparent/child relationship is necessary to ensure that the application of parental immunity does not unjustly deprive a child of the right to seek legal redress. The parent immunity doctrine represents a balance between the child's right to be fairly compensated for personal injuries resulting from another's wrongful conduct and the parents' right to raise a child free from undue judicial interference. The infringement of the child's right is deemed justified when considering certain premises: the natural bond of affection between a parent and child renders the deterrent purpose of civil liability unnecessary; civil liability is unnecessary to make an injured child whole as a parent already is financially responsible for the child; the intimacy of the parent/child bond makes a parent uniquely situated to judge what is best for the child; and the parent actually has the right to exercise parental discipline and parental discretion on behalf of the child. The loco parentis requirement serves the purpose of ensuring the validity of these premises as applied to a stepparent who claims the protection of parental immunity.


Three-year-old Ashley McLellan drowned in a backyard swimming pool while under the supervision of her stepfather, Joel Zellmer. The trial court ruled the parental immunity doctrine shields Zellmer from liability for negligence in connection with her death. Petitioners Stacey Ferguson and Bruce McLellan, Ashley's biological parents, challenge that ruling. They contend the parental immunity doctrine should be abolished in favor of a reasonable parent standard. Alternatively, they argue the doctrine does not apply under the facts of this case. The court continued to hold that parents were immune from suit for negligent parental supervision, but not for willful or wanton misconduct in supervising a child. There was no exception for cases involving death. 


Did the parental immunity doctrine shield the stepfather from liability for negligence in connection to the child's death?




The court confirmed the viability of the parental immunity doctrine and held that it applies to a stepparent who genuinely stands in loco parentis to an injured child to the same extent as to a legal parent. Further, it declined to recognize an exception where the alleged negligence resulted in a child's death. However, a genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether Zellmer established a loco parentis relationship with Ashley. Thus, the court reversed the summary judgment order and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

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