Reasonable Doubt: Bart Simpson, child litigant

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Any Simpsons fan will recall the late Maude Flanders’s common plea: “Won’t someone please think of the children?!” Last week, Laurel Dietz wrote an article about children involved in family and criminal court cases. This week, I address civil lawsuits started by children.

Since we’re already in the world of Springfield, let’s take an example from that classic episode “Bart Gets Hit by a Car”. Bart is out skateboarding and gets hit by Mr. Burns’s car. He wakes up in the hospital surrounded by his family and a character making his debut in the Simpsons universe—the beloved lawyer, Lionel Hutz. Despite only suffering a bump on the head and a broken toe, Lionel Hutz convinces Bart’s parents, Homer and Marge, to sue Mr. Burns for personal injuries. He goes so far as to promise a big cash settlement. The rest of the episode follows the sensational trial (including a hilarious expert witness in Dr. Nick Riviera) and the settlement negotiations. This episode may be over 20 years old, but I’ll give a spoiler alert now to avoid upsetting anyone. It is, after all, a classic.

In B.C., a minor generally starts a lawsuit with his or her guardian acting as the designated “litigation guardian”. The litigation guardian would hire and instruct a lawyer on behalf of the minor. Another party on that side of the lawsuit is the Public Guardian and Trustee. The PGT was created by legislation and provides services to protect the child’s interests.

The PGT can become involved in civil suits started by plaintiffs who are under 19 years old. This is not limited to lawsuits arising from car accidents. They can get involved in cases where minors sue for medical malpractice, dog bites, and slips and falls. In some situations, the PGT can act as a child’s litigation guardian.

If the PGT is acting as the litigation guardian, they may participate directly in settlement negotiations. Otherwise, they do not get involved in those discussions. Instead, their role is to look out for the child by reviewing and assessing proposed settlements. The PGT may consider the basis of the lawsuit, the strengths and weaknesses of the child’s case, and medical documentation. Ultimately, their job is to ensure the child is being fairly compensated. This provides some safeguards against litigation guardians who might not have the child’s best interests in mind.

For settlement of a child’s lawsuit over $50,000, the PGT provides written recommendations to the court. The court in turn may approve or reject the settlement. So back to our case study: in mid-trial Bart wins over the jury with his touching testimony. Mr. Burns, on the other hand, does his defence no favours by erupting in court at one point with, “I should be able to run over as many kids as I want!” Later that day, Mr. Burns summons Bart’s parents to his mansion and offers $500,000 to settle the lawsuit. Had they accepted, one of the sides would have needed the PGT to review the settlement amount and to provide written recommendations for the court. The court would get the final say as to whether the matter was settled.

For settlements up to $50,000, the law gives the PGT the authority for final approval. Near the end of trial in our example, Marge is called for cross-examination. She refuses to lie and admits that Dr. Riviera is a fake doctor and that Lionel Hutz told Bart to lie about his injuries. Outside of court, Mr. Burns’ lawyers make a new settlement offer: $0. On Lionel Hutz’s recommendation, Homer begrudgingly accepts. In B.C., the PGT would have needed to give final approval for this agreement. Lionel Hutz would have needed to prepare a package of materials in order to satisfy the PGT that the offer of $0 was fair for Bart. Only then would the agreement be enforced.

The PGT provides a host of other legal services and their assistance is not limited to children in B.C. They can become involved in various legal, financial, and health matters. I return to the rhetorical question that I started out with: won’t someone think of the children? In the context of child claimants and civil lawsuits, this is where the court, the litigation guardian, and the PGT in particular come in. This would be especially important if the case is run by Lionel Hutz.

(I would like to thank Jennifer Davenport at the Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee for providing information about the PGT’s work. For more information, you can visit the PGT website.)

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