Brief Summary: The parental immunity doctrine does apply in Tennessee but was limited by the Tennessee Supreme Court in 1994. The doctrine is limited to “conduct that constitutes the exercise of parental authority, the performance of parental supervision, and the provision of parental care and custody.”
Analysis: I recently received a question about whether a child can sue their parent for negligence in tort. Historically, the doctrine of “parental immunity” barred such a cause of action. This doctrine was first adopted by Tennessee Supreme Court in McKelvey v. McKelvey, 77 S.W. 664 (Tenn. 1903). It was also reaffirmed as recently as 1985 by the Tennessee Supreme Court in Barranco v. Jackson, 690 S.W.2d 221 (Tenn. 1985). However, this doctrine was modified by the Tennessee Supreme Court in 1994 in the case of Broadwell by Broadwell v. Holmes, 871 S.W.2d 471 (Tenn. 1994).
In Broadwell, the Tennessee Supreme Court noted the trend at that time across America was to modify and limit the absolute parental immunity doctrine. As a result, the Court analyzed various modifications other states had enacted to the parental immunity doctrine (this is an interesting analysis if you are interested in this topic but it will not be restated here). Broadwell at 473 – 475. The Court also noted the reasons and justification for this doctrine as follow:
The parental right to govern the rearing of a child has been afforded protection under both the federal and state constitutions. This Court has stated, “Tennessee's historically strong protection of parental rights and the reasoning of federal constitutional cases convince us that parental rights constitute a fundamental liberty interest under Article I, Section 8 of the Tennessee Constitution.” The integrity of the family unit has found protection against arbitrary state interference in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Courts have expressed a concern that without the imposition of parent-child immunity, juries would feel free to express their disapproval of what they consider to be unusual or inappropriate child rearing practices by awarding damages to children whose parents' conduct was only unconventional.
(citations omitted) Broadwell at 475, 476. Despite the important function of the immunity, the Court decided to modify the absolute nature of the parental immunity doctrine. The Court noted that the relationship between a parent and a child is not exclusively that of parent-child. There are other facets to the relationship. The court noted:
A parent's conduct that injures a child may be outside the scope of their relationship as parent-child, and a child may be injured by a parent's conduct that is not in the exercise of parental authority, supervision, care, or custody. Consequently, the scope of the exemption from liability should be limited or defined by the purpose for granting the immunity, and the definition of the duty alleged to have been breached will disclose whether there is immunity
Parental immunity in Tennessee is limited to conduct that constitutes the exercise of parental authority, the performance of parental supervision, and the provision of parental care and custody. The operation of an automobile under the circumstances alleged in this case is not protected conduct under this standard.
(citations omitted) Broadwell at 476, 477.
As a result, the Court limited the parental immunity doctrine in Tennessee. The parental immunity doctrine still applies in certain circumstances; however, a fact specific inquiry must be made in order to determine the exact scope of parental immunity as applied to an individual case. In the Broadwell case, the negligent operation of an automobile by a parent that caused injuries to the parent’s children was not protected by parental immunity in Tennessee.