PORTLAND, Maine — In a ruling that will have practical implications for parents throughout the state, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court refused to hold a North Berwick couple legally accountable for the serious injuries suffered in an accident by a young skateboarder they hosted for a sleepover the previous night.

With the ruling, the court determined it would be unreasonable to expect parents hosting sleepovers to ensure that all party guests get adequate rest for all future activities. It avoided setting a precedent that would have left those parents open to lawsuits if their sleepover guests were subsequently injured due — directly or indirectly — to being overtired.

In a 16-page decision issued Tuesday and written by Justice Donald Alexander, the state’s highest court affirmed a previous York County Superior Court ruling that Randall and Rose Dawson were not to blame for a 2009 incident in which then-13-year-old Timothy Bell rode his skateboard down their driveway and into an oncoming vehicle.

Bell had stayed at the Dawsons’ home the night before the morning accident. Lewiston attorney Sheldon Tepler, representing Bell’s mother, Teresa, argued in part that the boy’s skateboarding judgment was impaired by the lack of sleep he received staying up with friends at the Dawsons’ house.

But ruling in Bell’s favor would have set a challenging precedent for parents across the state, the court decided.

“Bell’s theory of the scope of one’s duty during the night ultimately turns on whether, as a matter of law, an adult supervising a teenage sleepover has a duty to [1] ensure that a child actually obtains sufficient sleep, whatever that may mean, throughout the night, or [2] know exactly how much sleep a child did get so that the adult can assess whether it was enough for that particular child to engage in some future activity, even one that occurs after the child has left that adult’s custody,” the court decision reads, in part. “We decline to impose such a duty to monitor sleep patterns at a teenage sleepover.”

According to court documents, Timothy Bell returned home from the Dawsons’ house at around 7 a.m., stayed there for about 20 minutes, and then went back to the Dawsons’ residence, where he began the skateboarding activity that led to the crash.

The high court determined in its ruling that once Bell went home and interacted with his parents, the Dawsons’ temporary custodial duties ended, and Bell’s parents’ responsibilities resumed. The Dawsons, who were unaware that Bell had returned, never reclaimed custodial responsibility for the boy, the court ruled.

Once the justices decided that the Dawsons did not have current custody of Bell when the accident occurred, they moved on to decide that the Dawsons were also not liable on the grounds that the accident was caused in part by the fact that Bell was overtired as a result of what transpired during the overnight period in which he was in their custody.

The Supreme Court also rejected Tepler’s argument that the Dawsons should be held legally accountable for the crash because vegetation on their property may have obstructed the view of the oncoming driver.

But the court did not leave the Dawsons unscathed in its decision. The couple admitted to hosting parties for teenagers, drinking heavily with the underage guests around and supplying them with cigarettes. Rose Dawson additionally admitted she tricked Bell’s parents into believing the teenager was at a different house that night by claiming to be another friend’s mother over the phone.

“The manner in which the Dawsons conducted themselves on the evening of May 9, 2009, and the extremely poor judgment they demonstrated throughout their interactions with Timothy, is unconscionable,” the court’s ruling read, in part. “However, the court did not err as a matter of law in granting a summary judgment in favor of the Dawsons on Bell’s claim of negligent supervision.”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.