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Jennifer Connell did her best on TODAY to explain why she sued her adorable 8-year-old nephew after he injured her, surely unintentionally, with what her lawyer called a “forceful greeting.” (Count on lawyers to turn a happy hug into a joyless phrase.)
The lawsuit, a somber Jennifer told Savannah Guthrie, was “a formality with an insurance claim.” Her nephew, Sean Tarala, supported his aunt-turned-legal adversary, insisting, “She would never do anything to hurt the family … She loves us.”
It was a relief to watch Jennifer and Sean express their love. No one likes to see families at war. But after the interview, some viewers remained perplexed. If it made legal sense for Jennifer to sue Sean to collect damages from his family’s insurance policy, why did she end up with nothing?
The best way to answer that question is to divide the lawsuit into two parts.
Part One: Don’t Take Personal Injury Personally
“Anytime someone is injured in another person’s home, the question is whether homeowners insurance will cover the injury,” says Brendan Maher, professor of law and director of the Insurance Law Center at the University of Connecticut School of Law.
Homeowners buy insurance to cover legal responsibility they may have for injuries in their home. Chances are those homeowners know, and love, most of the people they invite to their home.
So what happens when friends or family pay a visit and something goes wrong? Cue the lawyers, who may file suit to recover a homeowners insurance payment.
Suing someone you are related to or love (or just tolerate at family holidays) can be awkward.
In a related personal story, my dad missed a step and fell at the temple where I was about to get married, breaking his leg minutes before the ceremony. My parents wanted to sue; I was aghast and wouldn’t allow it. That’s why personal injury lawyers take pains to reassure injured clients that their friends and family will understand if they sue.
“These cases come up all the time and people don’t bat an eyelash,” Maher says.
The problem with Jennifer’s case, then, wasn’t her attempt to collect. It was the winsome pre-teen target of her lawsuit.
Part Two: The Reasonable 8-Year-Old?
Eight year olds can’t vote, drink or sign up for Facebook, but they can be held legally responsible if their negligent behavior causes an injury.
“There’s no bar [to the claim],” says Maher. “You just modify the standard.”
In other words, the law expects an adult to behave as a reasonable adult would; failure to do so can mean the adult was negligent.
But the jury in Jennifer’s case had to decide whether when little Sean hugged her — and fractured her left arm in the process — he behaved like a reasonable 8-year-old, or an unreasonable, negligent one.
“When you are 8 years old and hugging your aunt, you are behaving like a reasonable 8-year-old,” says Maher. He described the negligence claim against Sean as “fairly strained.”
The jury agreed: It took just 25 minutes to throw out the case, awarding Jennifer nothing.
In short, it might have been easier for Jennifer to win had she tripped on a rug instead of being hurt by a hug. (The rug might be the homeowner’s responsibility; the hug was the act of her loving nephew.)
Someday, the case of the lively nephew and his reluctantly litigious aunt may find its place in the incredible lawsuit Hall of Fame, right alongside the man who sued ESPN, Major League Baseball and the Yankees when he was broadcast sleeping through a game or the woman famously scalded by McDonald’s coffee. (His case was tossed; hers was settled.)
If it does, Jennifer and Sean won’t have to travel far to see it: Their home state, Connecticut, is the location of the newly-opened American Museum of Tort Law.
Lisa Green is an NBC legal analyst and author of “On Your Case: A Comprehensive, Compassionate (and Only Slightly Bossy) Legal Guide for Every Stage of a Woman’s Life.”