CAPE ELIZABETH, Maine — A North Berwick couple who allegedly held overnight parties for local teenagers — sometimes without their parents’ awareness — should be held accountable for an accident that seriously injured a young skateboarder near their property, an attorney for the boy’s parents argued Wednesday.
The case of Timothy Bell, a then-13-year-old who rode his skateboard down the North Berwick driveway of Randall and Rose Dawson and into an oncoming vehicle in May of 2009, was heard Wednesday by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
Teresa Bell, represented by Lewiston attorney Sheldon Tepler, is asking the state’s highest court to overturn a York County Superior Court ruling that nothing the Dawsons did could legally be seen as a cause of the accident, and therefore Bell’s civil lawsuit against the couple could not go to trial.
Tepler urged the law court justices Wednesday to instead let a jury decide whether the Dawsons had legal “duty of care” responsibility for Timothy Bell at the time of the crash, or that an untrimmed bush at the end of their driveway obscured the boy’s and driver’s vision enough to be considered a legal “proximate cause” for the accident.
Portland attorney Jonathan Brogan, representing the Dawsons, countered that although Timothy Bell had stayed up the entire previous night while under his clients’ presumed care, the boy had gone home and checked in with his parents the morning of the accident. At that point, Brogan argued, Teresa Bell and her husband took responsibility back for their son.
Timothy Bell then told his parents he wanted to go visit friends, returned to the Dawsons’ home before they woke up and ultimately skateboarded from their driveway into oncoming traffic.
The case hit home for Wednesday morning’s audience. As part of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court’s annual tour of selected state high schools, the attorneys delivered their arguments before an auditorium of Cape Elizabeth High School students, many of whom said they related to Timothy Bell’s comings and goings.
The court was invited to the high school by state Rep. Kimberly Monaghan-Derrig, D-Cape Elizabeth, and Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth.
“I think it was an appropriate case to open with, considering none of us have probably ever seen the supreme court in action before,” said Brian Nestor, a senior at the school.
“I know [some of what Timothy Bell experienced] from going to sleepovers myself, because they’re prevalent,” said fellow senior Timothy Hartel. “It’s interesting to think about who is responsible for me and the decisions I make afterward.”
In the case of Timothy Bell, Tepler argued that because the Dawsons had been drinking the night before and did nothing to ensure the boy got any sleep, the couple was negligent and his subsequent overexhaustion contributed to his questionable decision to skateboard down their driveway the next morning.
Making matters worse, Tepler noted that the Dawsons, whose own children have grown up and moved out, had regularly held overnight parties for young neighborhood teens. According to court documents, Rose Dawson pretended to be another teen’s mother in a phone call to Bell’s father the night before the accident.
The Bells did not know the Dawsons before the crash and believed their son was staying the night at a different home.
“Not only did the defendants take control of a 13-year-old boy, but they did so deceptively and surreptitiously,” Tepler told the court justices Wednesday. “To say they had no ‘duty of care’ is just wrong.”
But Justice Joseph Jabar worried that by ruling in Bell’s favor, the court would be setting a precedent by which any parents who host a sleepover could be held liable for any harm that comes to an overtired child the following day. Jabar suggested such a precedent would be unrealistic given the nature of sleepovers, where even the most responsible of hosting parents struggle to prevent children from staying up late.
However, the justices’ concern about setting a difficult precedent for parents hosting parties did not prevent them from scrutinizing the Dawsons’ role in the incident. Brogan acknowledged before the judges that his clients “are not paragons of virtue.”
“Your clients are basically running a place where kids are coming unsupervised overnight to party and do anything they want,” Justice Donald Alexander said to Brogan. “Shouldn’t there be strict liability? … In effect, your clients were creating a sort of ‘safe haven’ from their parents.”
The is no timetable under which the justices must issue their decision after hearing arguments Wednesday.