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Defining Proper Limits for Responsibility

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For toddlers who make mistakes, punishment in a time out chair is relatively standard. Yet, according to the judicial system, a four-year-old can actually be sued.

In 2009, preschoolers Juliet Breitman and Jacob Kohn were racing their bikes down a sidewalk in New York when they accidentally slammed into 87-year old Claire Menagh. The collision fractured the woman’s hip. Despite surgery, she passed away three months later. The official cause of death was not made clear in the article, but Ms. Menagh’s estate proceeded to sue the children and their parents for negligence. In response, James P. Tyrie, Juliet Breitman’s attorney, fought back stating it was unlawful. He argued:

. . . the girl was not ‘engaged in an adult activity’ at the time of the accident — ‘She was riding her bicycle with training wheels under the supervision of her mother’ — and was too young to be held liable for negligence.. . ‘Courts have held that an infant under the age of 4 is conclusively presumed to be incapable of negligence.’

Justice Paul Wooten of the State Supreme Court in Manhattan, who was overseeing the case, upheld the proceedings despite Tyrie’s argument that the children were too young to be sued. Turns out, children under the age of four are considered incapable of negligence, but since Breitman and Kohn were over the age limit at the time of the accident the lawsuit is viable.

The article then goes on to lay out limits for any “reasonably prudent child.” Basically, the judge said that children at that age should know better than to dash out into traffic. That running across a street can be dangerous, and that should be known by the child. Basically, a child of that age should be responsible. This of course assumes an average level of intelligence for the child, but it also relies on a reasonable standard of parenting. If a parent never instructed the kid on those dangers, then they would have no other way of knowing at that age. Even worse, if a parent was to shield a kid by keeping him or her indoors for years, then the first time outside would be a complete mystery. While that doesn’t seem to have been the case here, it’s important to view the standards set up by the judge.

small business consultant thinking

© Flickr user Sebastiaan ter Burg

There’s no denying that at some point a person must be able to accept responsibility for their actions. The question is whether or not a definitive line can be drawn based on age? Some would say yes. Others would disagree. Regardless, unlike children who lack full authority, setting limits based on time rather than skill level can be dangerous in the workplace.

Just as the judge was able to assume the kids could know the danger that was possible through parenting, it’s important to set standards for responsibility from the start. Lay out what you expect from employees, but then trust that they understand and will move forward in an appropriate manner. After you’ve made your dangers clear, it’s the employee’s responsibility to beware of going beyond the limits that are in place.

After all, withholding employee responsibility for too long does more than diminish motivation—it weakens confidence.

That is why we encourage our readers to empower their stakeholders through knowledge, authority, and responsibility. After all, providing employees with the freedom to analyze and implement business processes achieves the most powerful method for improving productivity and satisfaction in the office. Consider reaching out to business process consultants like those at AccelaWork to learn more. We guarantee we can help you create an environment with limitless possibilities.

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