Adults with physical or legal custody over a child have an obligation to care for the child’s needs. Failure to do so can be characterized as child neglect, which is a form of child abuse. Whether a given set of facts adds up to child neglect is a judgment call, however. So is failing to buckle up a child an offense serious enough to constitute neglect? Let’s look at what Pennsylvania law says.
Pennsylvania’s Child Passenger Protection Law
Under Pennsylvania’s Child Passenger Protection Law, all drivers must securely fasten children under eight years old in a child restraint or booster whenever the child rides in the vehicle. Additional rules apply to children under four years old and under two years old. Violators must pay a small fine.
Child Neglect/Abuse in Pennsylvania
According to the definition of child abuse found in the Child Protective Services Law, “[c]reating a reasonable likelihood of bodily injury to a child through…any failure to act…” constitutes child abuse (including child neglect). Arguably, failing to buckle a child’s car seat falls within this definition. After all, failing to buckle up a child is a failure to act, and a child riding without a restraint/booster creates some risk of bodily injury.
The wording of this law is ambiguous enough for lawyers to argue either way. A single instance of failing to buckle up a child, especially if it appears to be an oversight, probably doesn’t constitute child neglect. However, doing so repeatedly could be a different story.
In Pennsylvania, child endangerment occurs when someone “supervising the welfare” of a minor (under 18) “knowingly endangers the child’s welfare.” The perpetrator is guilty of the criminal offense of child endangerment. The perpetrator’s supervisor or employer can also bear criminal liability.
Injuring a Child Through Failure To Buckle Up: Personal Injury
If a child suffers an injury in an accident because the driver failed to buckle them up, a parent or guardian can file a personal injury lawsuit on behalf of the child.
The lawsuit would be based on the concept of negligence per se, which is a shortcut to proving negligence under Pennsylvania law. In a nutshell, you can establish negligence under Pennsylvania’s negligence per se doctrine by proving that the defendant caused the child’s injuries by violating a safety law or regulation. In this case, you can assert that the defendant violated:
- The Child Passenger Protection Law,
- The Child Protective Services Law, or
- The Child Endangerment Law.
Once you prove negligence and causation, you can demand financial compensation to cover the child’s economic and non-economic damages.
The Family Law Consequences of Child Neglect
In Pennsylvania child custody proceedings, a parent can lose custody of a child or be subject to other consequences for conduct that is not even illegal. For illegal conduct that endangers the child, as discussed above, negative custody consequences are even more likely. Ultimately, however, it is up to a family court to decide.
Criminal Law Consequences of Child Neglect
The perpetrator must have acted intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly to be guilty of criminal child abuse. In other words, negligence (carelessness) is not enough to result in criminal liability. It might be enough, however, to win a personal injury lawsuit if the child suffers an injury after a car accident that way.
In Pennsylvania, the punishment for child abuse/neglect depends on the specific facts of the case. Although the maximum penalty is five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, a Pennsylvania court is unlikely to impose such an extreme penalty for merely failing to buckle up a child. Nevertheless, you should not ignore possible criminal law consequences.
An Experienced Attorney Can Help You Understand Your Legal Options
If you find yourself in a situation concerning whether failing to buckle a child’s car seat constitutes a form of neglect, it’s likely in your best interest to reach out to a qualified attorney for legal help. A lawyer can work with you to determine your best legal course of action so that you can protect your rights and interests going forward.