Neel v. Sewell

834 F. Supp. 2d 648 (2011)

Quick Summary

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Brandon Neel (plaintiff) sued his father, David Evans (defendant), and step-grandmother after being severely burned by an exploding aerosol can while burning trash. Neel claimed negligent supervision by Evans during the hazardous activity. The court concluded that under Michigan law, parental immunity barred Neel’s claims of negligent supervision against Evans.

Facts of the Case

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Brandon Neel, a seventeen-year-old, was helping his father, David Evans, and his aunt clean out the home of his step-grandmother, Beverly Sewell. During this process, they started a fire in the backyard to burn gathered trash. One of the trash bags placed on the fire contained an aerosol can, which subsequently exploded, causing Neel to suffer severe burns.

Neel sued both his father and step-grandmother in federal district court, claiming physical and emotional injuries from the explosion. Neel alleged that his father negligently supervised him by failing to maintain safe practices for disposing of flammable materials and failing to teach proper safety protocols. Neel testified that it was his father’s idea to start the fire and that either his father or his aunt ignited it.

During deposition, Neel stated he believed he was free to stop participating in burning the trash at any time and that he generally felt in control of the fire. Despite this awareness, he claimed that his father’s failure to ensure safe disposal standards and appropriate warnings constituted negligent supervision.

Procedural Posture and History

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  1. Brandon Neel filed an initial claim in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, seeking damages for injuries.
  2. David Evans moved for summary judgment, arguing that parental immunity under Michigan law barred Neel’s claims of negligent supervision.
  3. The trial court reviewed the motion, focusing on whether Evans’ actions fell within the exceptions to parental immunity as outlined by the Michigan Supreme Court in Plumley v. Klein.

I.R.A.C. Format


Issue Icon

Whether the doctrine of parental immunity under Michigan law bars a claim of negligent supervision against a parent when a child is injured while engaging in hazardous activities supervised by the parent.

Rule of Law

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Under Michigan law, as established in Plumley v. Klein (199 N.W.2d at 172-73), parental immunity is available where the alleged negligent act involves:

  • An exercise of reasonable parental authority over the child, or
  • An exercise of reasonable parental discretion with respect to the provision of care.

Reasoning and Analysis

Reasoning Icon

The court applied the Plumley v. Klein exceptions to determine if David Evans’ actions fell within the scope of reasonable parental authority, thereby affording him immunity from liability. The court found that Neel’s claims were rooted in accusations of negligent supervision and failure to ensure safety during a potentially hazardous activity—burning trash containing an aerosol can.

The cases cited by Defendant Evans, including Paige v. Bing Construction Co., McCallister v. Sun Valley Pools, Inc., Wright v. Wright, and Mickel v. Wilson, consistently held that claims of negligent supervision are barred under the first Plumley exception. The court determined that these precedents applied to Evans’ conduct since it involved supervising his son during trash disposal activities.

Neel’s arguments attempting to distinguish these cases were unpersuasive. Despite Neel’s learning disability and special education background, the court found no basis to modify or create exceptions within established Michigan case law concerning parental immunity based on a child’s specific level of functioning.


Conclusion Icon

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan granted summary judgment in favor of David Edward Evans, holding that Neel’s claims were barred by the doctrine of parental immunity under Michigan law.

Key Takeaways

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  1. Parents in Michigan are generally immune from liability for injuries to their minor children arising from alleged negligent supervision.
  2. The court will consider whether a parent’s conduct falls under ‘reasonable parental authority’ when evaluating claims against them by their children.
  3. The standard for ‘reasonable parental authority’ does not change based on a child’s age or level of functioning.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What legal doctrines protect parents from liability for actions involving their children?

Parental immunity is a legal doctrine that protects parents from civil liability for injuries their minor children sustain as a result of routine parenting decisions and actions.

  • For example: If a child breaks their arm falling from a tree the parent allowed them to climb in their backyard, the parent might be shielded by parental immunity.

Under what circumstances can parental immunity be waived in injury cases?

Parental immunity may be waived when a parent’s actions fall outside typical parental duties, such as engaging in willful misconduct or when an injury occurs during a commercial transaction.

  • For example: A parent instructing their child to assist in the operation of hazardous machinery at a family-owned business might not be covered by parental immunity.

How does the law distinguish between parental discretion and negligence?

The law separates parental discretion from negligence by assessing whether a parent’s decision was made within the bounds of reasonable care and judgement expected in supervision.

  • For example: Providing a child with age-appropriate toys is considered discretionary, but leaving dangerous chemicals within reach could be seen as negligent.


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