Appeals court: No award to victim of fight at crawfish boil

David Yates Oct. 18, 2007, 8:13am

Punched in the face at a Young Life crawfish boil by a minor in May 2003, Ryne Cohen sought justice on both criminal and civil fronts.

The juvenile that struck Cohen was prosecuted on criminal charges and placed on probation, but justices on the Ninth Court of Appeals affirmed a civil district court's take-nothing judgment on Thursday, Oct. 18, leaving Cohen empty handed.

According to an opinion authored by Justice Charles Kreger, Cohen, who was not a Young Life member, arrived outside of the event to meet the minor's ex-girlfriend. Young Life is a Christian ministry organization for teens.

Upset over a rumor implicating the girl and Cohen, the minor crossed the street and punched Cohen in the face, breaking his jaw.

In retaliation, Cohen filed a personal injury suit against the minor, the minor's father Norbert Hoose, and Young Life, the sponsors and hosts of the event,in the Jefferson County District Court.

"The trial court (172nd Judicial District) granted Hoose's motion for summary judgment and entered a take-nothing judgment on Cohen's claims against Hoose," Kreger wrote.

A "take-nothing judgment" means that the plaintiff wins on the merits of the dispute, but receives no monetary or injunctive relief. It is generally used when a party has already received compensation from another source.

Cohen appealed after the trial court severed his claims against Hoose from the claims against Young Life. He contends that Hoose was negligent in failing to supervise his son, failing to warn others of his son's propensity for violence, and in failing to exercise reasonable parental controls over his son.

Hoose contended at trial and on appeal that his son's violent behavior was not foreseeable as a matter of law. Cohen contended the summary judgment evidence raised a fact issue on foreseeability, Kreger wrote.

"To impose civil liability on a parent for a child's intentional tort, the plaintiff must prove the injury to the third party was reasonably foreseeable under the circumstances 'as evidenced by the parent's knowledge, consent, sanction, or participation in the child's activities,'" Kreger wrote.

"There is nothing foreseeably dangerous about attending a Young Life crawfish boil; therefore, the issue in this appeal is whether Hoose was aware or should have been aware of a specific danger to Cohen, or that his son's violent propensities required that Hoose either prevent his son from attending an innocuous social event or warn the hosts of the danger his son presented to the other attendees."

In his deposition, the son claimed no one was aware of his ill feelings toward Cohen, and Cohen produced no summary judgment evidence that Hoose knew he existed. Cohen did not argue that Hoose should have warned him personally, but did argue Hoose had a general duty to warn others because he had knowledge of his son's propensity for violence.

"According to Cohen, the summary judgment evidence creating a fact issue on Hoose's knowledge includes the following:
-The son showed little emotion after the assault, indicating he was accustomed to such conduct;
-Hoose told his son to stay home while he went to see Cohen at the hospital, which Cohen argues indicates Hoose may have been expecting such behavior;
-The son pleaded guilty to assaulting Cohen, which Cohen argues indicates Hoose was aware of his son's violent tendencies;
-Hoose grounded his son for one month after being involved in a fight at school during the son's high school freshman year, which Cohen contends is sufficient to create a jury issue on the foreseeability of the assault on Cohen;
-And the son's high school disciplinary record showed 48 infractions, which Cohen argues demonstrated Hoose was aware his son was a troublemaker," Kreger wrote.

The minor's seven-year school disciplinary record consisted primarily of excessive tardiness infractions and dress code violations.

However, one of the boy's violations was a "fighting/mutual combat" infraction that occurred on Feb. 20, 2002.

"That one fight is the only summary judgment evidence of violent conduct of the son other than the assault on Cohen," Kreger wrote. "A single incident of mutual combat fifteen months earlier does not create a perpetual anticipation of unprovoked violence."

But Cohen contended that the freshman year fight supplies the sort of prior history of similar violence that would make the assault on Cohen foreseeable.

In addition, Kreger wrote that even the young woman who was present at the time and possessed an actual awareness of the potential for animosity between the two young men did not anticipate the son's violent reaction to seeing Cohen.

"She knew the son was upset, but she did not have any reason to expect that the son was going to hit Cohen until it happened," he wrote.

"We hold there are no genuine issues of material fact that Hoose knew or through the exercise of reasonable care should have reasonably anticipated that his son posed a danger to others," the appeals court ruled. "The trial court did not err in granting summary judgment. The judgment is affirmed."

Cohen is represented by attorney John S. Morgan. Hoose is represented by Eric Laskowski.

Appeals Case No. 09-06-297 CV
Trial Case No. E173-474B

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