ANNAPOLIS – Although they gave him the car, the parents of an adult son who swerved into oncoming traffic and crashed into another driver cannot be held accountable for the accident, the Maryland Court of Appeals said in a unanimous ruling Friday.
The court ruled that accident victim Matilda Woodward Dorsey cannot hold the parents of Ronald Broadwater Jr. responsible for damages — even if they knew of their son’s drug problem and reckless driving before giving him the car.
This reverses a decision by the Baltimore County Circuit Court, which had ruled in Dorsey’s favor, as did the Court of Special Appeals.
Attorney Matthew S. Sturtz, who represented Broadwater’s parents, said his clients expressed relief that the ruling has likely ended the nearly four-year court case.
According to Sturtz, the accident victim contended that Broadwater’s parents had the ability, and therefore the duty, to control his behavior.
But Sturtz argued that his clients lost that right when their son turned 18, particularly because the car was titled in the son’s name.
“Does the court believe that the Broadwaters’ status as parents of an emancipated, adult child carries with it some duty to control their son or the car?” Sturtz asked in the briefs for the case.
John T. Ward, who represented Dorsey in the case, said that by absolving Broadwater’s parents, the court gave parents a “blueprint for how to escape responsibility.”
Ward said the case implies that parents have only to surrender the title to their child to escape blame. “And you have to make sure [the child] is 18 years and one day old,” he said. “Then you’re home free.”
The case began Oct. 2, 1992 when Broadwater, then 26, crossed the center line of Falls Road and collided head-on into Dorsey’s car as she drove to pick up her children.
According to Ward, Dorsey sustained serious injuries, including a broken arm that required surgery. Her eye socket also “exploded” and plastic surgery was necessary, he said.
Dorsey and her husband sued Broadwater for negligent driving. They also sued his parents, alleging that the Broadwaters negligently entrusted the car to their son.
Dorsey’s lawyers said Broadwater’s continuing problems with reckless driving, drug addiction and dangerous behavior warned his parents that he posed a threat to others before they gave him the car.
According to the briefs submitted by Ward, “During his brief driving career, Ronnie [Broadwater] accumulated an impressive array of traffic citations and convictions, resulting in a total of some 17 points on his driving record.”
Dorsey’s lawyer said that in the months before Broadwater’s mother Eleanor bought the 1982 Mazda RX7 sports car for her son, she filed for charges against him several times for assaulting her and for theft.
Eleanor Broadwater and her husband filed for a court order for an emergency alveolation of their son, swearing under oath that he talked irrationally and was a threat to himself mentally, physically and to the community.
Three months later, Eleanor Broadwater bought her son the Mazda and paid for his insurance.
In an opinion written by Judge Irma S. Raker, the court said that even if Broadwater’s parents believed he was a threat to himself and others when they gave him the car, they had “no legal right to control Ronald Jr. at the time of the accident because he was an adult.”
Raker said the parents’ continuing financial support of their son did not give them any right to control his actions. The court reversed the prior decisions and remanded the case to the Baltimore County Circuit Court to enter a judgment in favor of the Broadwaters. Court costs will be charged to Dorsey. -30-