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Couple not negligent in baby's death

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A couple did not breach their duty to protect a baby from a dangerous condition on their property in which a 2-month-old died after his mother smothered him while the two slept on a sofa at the couple's home. The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed judgment as a matter of law in favor of the couple, ruling the parents of the infant had the duty to protect the child.

In Alisha Harradon and William Kenneth Jones Jr., individually and as parents of William Kenneth Jones III, deceased v. Keith and Kathy Schlamadinger, No. 75A03-0903-CV-114, 17-year-old parents Alisha Harradon and William Kenneth Jones Jr. claimed William's aunt and uncle, the Schlamadingers, were negligent and owed a reasonable care of duty to their son. William III died after Alisha decided to sleep on the Schlamadingers' sofa with the infant. The baby suffocated and died.

The parents filed a wrongful death complaint alleging the Schlamadingers' negligent failure to provide appropriate sleeping accommodations was the proximate cause of the baby's death. Kathy told the couple they could sleep in a spare bedroom or on the sofa or loveseat in the living room. Alisha chose to sleep on the couch with the baby, even though William wasn't comfortable with this sleeping arrangement.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the aunt and uncle, ruling the infant's parents exercised total parental control over the baby and had a duty at all times to provide for his safety. The Court of Appeals agreed.

The appellate court took into consideration that the three were invitees on the Schlamadingers' property, that the infant was entirely dependant on his parents for his care, and that even though the parents were minors, they were charged with exercising the standard of care of adults.

"This is especially so because Parents had engaged in the adult activities of conceiving the child at issue and had exclusively cared for the child from its birth until its death," wrote Judge Paul Mathias.

The parents exclusively cared for the baby on the night of his death and the baby was never in Kathy's care. Public policy and common sense dictate that the duty to provide for a child's safety will usually rest with the child's parents while the child is in the parents' presence, he continued.

The Court of Appeals also rejected the parents' claim that the Schlamadingers owed a duty to the baby to exercise reasonable care to protect him from a condition on their property - the sofa. The sofa is a common household item that generally doesn't present an unreasonable risk of harm to a baby, wrote Judge Mathias, and the sofa wasn't a dangerous condition on their property within the meaning of Section 343 of Restatement (Second) of Torts.

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