It was supposed to be one of those weekend that the four young teen boys would have looked back on for years to come with fond memories. It was the Fourth of July. Their families were preparing for a large reunion at a lake house in Huntsville. The adults busied themselves with barbecue preparations. The boys gathered down by the dock to “hang out.”
What happened next has become an indelible memory for all, though one they likely wish they could forget. It ultimately resulted in one of those boys suffering a serious firework injury, resulting in an Alabama personal injury lawsuit alleging negligence, wanton supervision and assault.
The case of Beddingfield v. Linam was recently heard by the Alabama Supreme Court, which affirmed most of the trial court’s findings of negligence on behalf of the adults who owned the lake house. However, the court did reverse part of the earlier verdict alleging negligent entrustment.
The case involved three boys – cousins Cody and Jay and Jay’s best friend Trace. It was Cody’s parents who owned the lake house. Jay’s father and mother had arrived that day back in July 2004 to help Cody’s parents prepare for the family reunion. Trace tagged along with Jay.
While the boys headed out to fish for a while. They later returned to the house, where on the back porch they found a large pile of fireworks. The pile included artillery shells, M-80s, bottle rockets and more. The adults would later testify they didn’t purchase the fireworks and had no idea how the large pile came to be on the back porch. Unsupervised, the boys took a stash of the explosives and began setting them on fire near the lake.
At one point, Cody pointed a lit bottle rocket at Trace, who had bent down to tie his shoe. The firework struck Trace in the face with such force that he fell to the ground. Blood was everywhere, and he immediately – and permanently – lost total vision in his left eye.
It was an undisputed fact that none of the adults present were aware that the teens had gotten a hold of the fireworks and were shooting them.
Numerous surgeries later, Trace incurred more than $100,000 in medical expenses and has been deemed to have a 41 percent vocational disability. He was unable to continue playing school sports. He suffered disfigurement and had been forced to delay college while searching for an alternative career path.
As a result, he and his parents filed a civil lawsuit against Cody and his parents. Against Cody, the plaintiffs alleged negligence, wantonness and assault. Against Cody’s parents, the plaintiffs alleged negligent and wanton supervision and negligent entrustment.
The jury sided with the plaintiff, awarding $600,000 in compensatory damages against all three defendants, though it declined to award punitive damages.
Post-judgment, the defendants sought a new trial, which was denied.
However, defendants appealed. The appeal included the issue of negligent entrustment. This element of tort law holds that one party (here, the parents) are liable for the negligence of another (here, Cody) because they negligently provided some type of dangerous instrumentality (here, the fireworks).
Ultimately, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that there was insufficient evidence presented by the plaintiffs that Cody’s parents knew or should have known that the boys were shooting fireworks. There was no definitive proof that either one had purchased the fireworks or placed them on the back porch. There was also no indication that Cody was known for reckless behavior, and the boys weren’t young children – they were teens.
However, the court upheld the jury’s earlier findings of wanton supervision by the parents and negligence, wantonness and assault by Cody.
Beddingfield v. Linam, March 8, 2013, Supreme Court of Alabama, Appeal from Madison Circuit Court