Responsibility

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A girl can be sued over accusations she ran over an elderly woman with her training bicycle when she was 4 years old, a New York Supreme Court justice has ruled.
The ruling by King’s County Supreme Court Justice Paul Wooten stems from an incident in April 2009 when Juliet Breitman and Jacob Kohn, both aged four, struck an 87-year-old pedestrian, Claire Menagh, with their training bikes.
Menagh underwent surgery for a fractured hip and died three months later.

Johannesburg – A man apparently chopped his dog’s back legs off because she “stole” food from a neighbour in a squatter camp outside Sabie.
The female Africanis dog lay helplessly for more than a week behind the hut of her owner, Alfred Maganzi, 65, before residents of the Fok-fok squatter camp called the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).

Canis africanis


On the face of it these two news stories seem to have nothing in common. Half a planet apart, one a silly ruling by an overeducated first-world judge, the other a horrific act by an uneducated, unemployed third-world man; but at the root both made the same mistake: they failed to understand the nature of responsibility.

In order for responsibility to exist, the responsible agent must be able to understand that his actions will have consequences, and be able to make a reasonable assessment of what those consequences might be. In addition, to be held criminally responsible, he must make a conscious choice to perpetrate an act despite being aware that it will or may have adverse consequences.

Neither of those is true in either of these cases. Dogs’ and children’s brains are insufficiently advanced to be capable of anything but the most rudimentary reasoning, and to suggest that a four-year-old human or a dog is capable of performing a sophisticated analysis of cause and effect is ludicrous. When a dog is hungry its instinct will cause it to seek food, and if the only food available is in the hut of a neighbour, then it will take and eat it regardless of any human notions of ownership. (My dog Doofus, coincidentally also an Africanis, took and ate our Christmas chicken that was thawing out atop the oudoor barbecue. Scallywag and I had to make do with a Christmas meal of pizza and roast potatoes.) Similarly, children have very limited spacial awareness; they keep bumping into things and wandering around without looking where they are going. They surely cannot be held responsible for this—a characteristic of childhood behaviour.

However, it is reasonable to chastise dog or child for behaviour that we as adults would like to curb, in the interests of modifying future behaviour. We would like our children to know that running over old ladies with wheeled vehicles is not always a good thing, and we would like our dogs not to go around, like the Italian government, promiscuously gobbling up everything in sight regardless of where it is found. Mild rebuke is called for; suing and dismemberment are both grotesquely disproportionate.

I’m not familiar with the law in New York, but I presume there must be some legal guidelines as to the age at which a child becomes responsible (either in civil or criminal proceedings) for its actions, but I cannot believe that threshold would be as low as four, especially when they are deemed too immature to have sex until they are 18, or buy a beer until they are 21, or take marijuana ever. I don’t suppose we will ever know what caused the judge’s brainfart in actually believing that this child is responsible, but I’m quite sure his ruling will be overturned when, if ever, proceedings are initiated against the child, and no one will be the worse off. (The lawyers, as always, will be very much better off.)

The same cannot be said for the dog, which was put down after her week of agony. How any human being can be so devoid of empathy as to perform an act of such barbarism is beyond me—I do not have the mental equipment to understand it. I can only assume or hope that it is the result of mental illness, not an evil nature, and that Mr Maganzi receives, in either case, the treatment he deserves.

Creative Commons License
Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License

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