Debate over liability when hosting someone else's children

By Curt Autry - bio | email
Posted by Terry Alexander - email

HENRICO, VA (WWBT) - If you have a child that's ever had a friend spend the night, then this is a story you don't want to miss. The state Supreme Court has opened the door for a lawsuit against a Henrico family that was hosting their daughter's best friend for the weekend when tragedy struck.

The question is was the 2004 death of Jaimee Kellermann a tragic accident or negligence on the part of the host family and now the Supreme Court has ruled that a jury can decide.

Jaimee Kellermann, 14, moved away from the Short-Pump area, to Wake Forest, North Carolina but kept in close contact with her Short Pump girlfriends. And for one weekend in December 2004, she got to come back and stay with one of their friends.

That friend's mom dropped them off at the Short-Pump Mall, and promised to pick them up later. But plans changed. The girls went to the nearby movie theatre and after the show called the friend's mom back to see if it would be okay to drive home with a boy, Nate DeFrank, who was 17 at the time. The mom said yes. It would prove to be a fatal mistake.

Reportedly, driving at speeds approaching 80 miles per hour DeFrank lost control of his car and crashed, killing Jaimee, and seriously injuring two others. That boy is now in the penitentiary, on a whole list of charges unrelated to the crash.

The state supreme court has ruled Jaimee's parents can proceed in their claim against the host family. But some parents view the liability issue a gray area:

"I feel that I would be responsible for the child in my home -- however, outside of my home, I don't think I would have liability for the child in that case," said parent Leigh Folk.

"The bottom line is -- she's responsible for that child when she's in her care -- and she was in her care," said parent Susan Lynch.

But here's the catch -- in court filings Jaimee's parents made clear to the host family that they had rules.

And rule number one, as stated by Jaimee's father was no boys with cars. And the host mother reportedly agreed to abide by those rules, which in the eyes of the court changed everything:

"The court was unanimous that where a parent expressly agrees to rules such as that than that parent could be liable, the lawsuit can be brought, even though the injury might be caused by a completely unrelated third party," said Steven Benjamin, NBC12 Legal Analyst.

The attorney for the host family, Paul & Paula McDonnough, declined an on-camera, but did release a statement that reads in part: "Mr. Kellermann -- did not say anything to Mrs. McDonnough about not allowing Jaimee to ride in a car with a teenage driver."

And: "Mrs. McDonnough did grant permission for Jaimee and Becka to ride home from the movies with a licensed driver, and she had to knowledge of any past bad behavior of Nate DeFrank."

And the attorney for the Kellermann's also declined an on-camera interview. It's unclear at this time when the case might go to trial.

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