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Maryland Appeals Court To Determine If Parent-Child Immunity Applies In Wrongful Death Cases

Michaelangelo Heidenberg, the young son of Timothy Heidenberg and Claudia Grier, accidentally drowned in his father’s swimming pool. His mother, representing the boy’s estate, filed a claim of wrongful death naming the father as the defendant in a Howard County court. Judge Timothy J. McCrone ruled to allow the matter to continue despite the defense’s assertion that the claim of negligence should be barred according to the Doctrine of Parent-Child Immunity.

The defendant appealed the ruling and the Court of Special Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision that he was not shielded by immunity. The defense has since requested the highest court in Maryland to address the motion. They feel that a trial that alleges Mr. Heidenberg was negligent will be a “potentially gut-wrenching” experience that serves no purpose.

Case of Wrongful Death

Grier was the custodial parent of the boy and her husband had a set schedule of visitation. The defense explains that continuing with a trial would force a “deeply grieving father to again relive” the terrible tragedy that occurred. Defense attorneys stated that the Doctrine of Parent-Child Immunity is in place for situations like these in families and any judgment would simply be an “empty consolation.”

Previous Exception

Defense attorneys explained that courts in Maryland have not permitted negligence claims brought by children against parents in the past except when the parent demonstrated intent or malice. The plaintiff answered by discussing how the law allows children to sue their parents after incurring injuries in an automobile accident. There are three basic reasons that the court has traditionally supported the Doctrine of Parent-Child Immunity as follows:

  • To preserve the disciplinary role of parents
  • In order to prevent fraudulent acts or collusion
  • Because litigation among children and their parents could exhaust the family’s resources and hurt “family peace and harmony”

In §5–806, the legislature addressed actions brought by children who are not emancipated against their parents and actions brought by a parent against a child who is not emancipated. The provision states specifically that the Doctrine of Parent-Child Immunity does not restrict actions involving “wrongful death, personal injury, or property damage arising out of the operation of a motor vehicle.” It seems that the key here is that provision seems limited to cases involving a motor vehicle accident.

Custody Considerations

Plaintiff counsel said the defendant wrongfully termed his home where Michaelangelo had drowned as being the “family home.” The boy lived at the residence of his mother and often stayed with his father during visitation periods. Further, the parents are not married or living together; therefore, the plaintiff challenged the assertion that the action could hurt the family’s peace and harmony.

Hewlett v George

The Mississippi Supreme Court in Hewlett v. George did not allow for damages in a case where a child sued his mother for false imprisonment. The basis was that the court seeks to “promote peace in the family and in society.” Supporters of the ruling stated that such actions may “disrupt family harmony and domestic tranquility.” Other U.S. courts have ruled to the contrary, with several abolishing the immunity doctrine or greatly limiting when it is applicable.

About the Author

Charles GilmanCharles Gilman
Charles Gilman

As managing partner and co-founder of Gilman & Bedigian, it is my mission to help our clients recover and get their lives back on track. I strongly believe that every person who is injured by a wrongful act deserves compensation, and I will do my utmost to bring recompense to those who need and deserve it.


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