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Tennessee Court Says Noncustodial Parents May Have Right to Sue on Children’s Behalf

Every parent fears their child getting hurt in an accident. And when you believe someone else is to blame for your child’s injuries, you naturally want to hold the responsible parties accountable. But sometimes the law presents complications, such as when two parents disagree on whether to proceed with a potential civil lawsuit.

A minor child cannot file a lawsuit on their own. (For one thing, they cannot legally contract to hire an attorney.) In the Tennessee courts, a minor must therefore bring a lawsuit through a “next friend,” usually a parent or guardian. If no parent or guardian is available, a judge may appoint a representative to act as next friend.

Tennessee law also permits a second type of lawsuit brought by the parents of a minor. A parent may sue on his or her own behalf to recover any medical expenses incurred on behalf of the child, as well as any “actual loss of service” arising from the minor’s injuries. The law further states a father and mother have “equal rights” to bring such a case.

When Parents Can’t Agree

But what happens if the parents are divorced and they disagree on whether to bring a lawsuit for injuries sustained by their child? The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently addressed this issue. The minor in this case was injured while attending a shop class sponsored by a local Boys & Girls Club. According to the father, an instructor told the child to unplug an electric saw; the child then cut his finger while attempting to maintain his balance. The father argued the Boys & Girls Club was negligent in failing to properly supervise his son, thereby causing his injuries.

The father sued both on his own behalf and as next friend. The defense moved to dismiss, arguing the father was not the child’s custodial parent, and therefore had no standing to sue under Tennessee law. In fact, the father and mother did not live together, and under a court-approved “parenting plan,” the mother was designated the child’s “primary residential parent” for purposes of Tennessee and federal law. While the parenting plan maintains a significant role for the father—he has custody of the child about one-third of the time—the mother remains legal custodian.

For that reason, both the trial court and the Court of Appeals held the father could not sue to recover medical expenses or “loss of service” on his own behalf. That right belonged exclusively to the mother, who did not wish to proceed with a lawsuit. But the Court of Appeals, overruling the trial court, said the father could still bring a case as “next friend” on his child’s behalf, even though the mother chose not to do so. The appeals court said it could not find any law or rule in Tennessee that would prevent the father from doing so.

Does this mean noncustodial parents now have the right to sue on behalf of their children when the custodial parent objects? It is not entirely clear. The appeals court only said it could not identify any rule that would automatically bar such lawsuits. It certainly is not ideal for parents to pursue differing litigation strategies with respect to their children.

Reach Out to Our Attorneys Today

The Court of Appeals’ decision will no doubt spark additional debate within the Tennessee courts over how to deal with these types of cases. If you are the parent of a child who was suffered serious injuries as the result of someone else’s negligence, you will no doubt have many questions about the legal process. The attorneys at Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette in Knoxville and Clinton can provide you with professional advice on any personal injury matter.

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