Grandparents – In Loco Parentis?

The Alabama Supreme Court says grandparents and an aunt don’t enjoy parental immunity just because they’re acting as babysitters. Ruling in the case of Smith v. Smith, Case No. 1031744 (Ala. August 12, 2005), the Supreme Court reversed and remanded a trial court ruling that had granted immunity to the grandparents.

The mother had left her children with the paternal grandparents and an aunt for the weekend. One of the children was hit by a car outside the grandparents’ house and later died from his injuries. The mother sued the grandparents and the aunt for negligence. The trial court entered a judgement as a matter of law in favor of the defendants, ruling that they enjoyed parental immunity because they were acting in loco parentis (in the place of a parent).

The Supreme Court, ruling in what it said was a case of first impression in Alabama, said that a person stands in loco parentis when he or she (1) assumes the obligations incident to parental status, without legally adopting the child, and (2) voluntarily performs the parental duties to generally provide for the child. The Court said that question whether one has assumed obligations goes to the totality of circumstances, not any single factor in isolation. The Supreme Court said that the length of time a person spends with a child is not determinative of either prong of the above standard but is a significant factor.

The Court cited evidence that the children visited in the home of the paternal grandparents “three to four times a year. Such visits do not show that [the defendants] intended to assume all of the obligations of parents toward [the child who died].”

The Court distinguished this case from that of schoolteachers, who have been found to stand in loco parentis with respect to their students. The Court said that teachers stand in loco parentis “because of particular regular interactions they have with students.”

We decline to expand the holding in Hinson [v. Holt, 776 So. 2d 804 (Ala. Civ. App. 1998)] to other adults in children’s lives who may not play the same role as schoolteachers. Instead, we hold that the in loco parentis standard we set out today is applicable to determine whether a person stands in loco parentis in situations that do not involve schoolteachers or the Department of Human Resources.