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Michigan news

Parents of teen who set school ablaze billed; $715,000 tab stirs liability questions

November 12, 2003


A Livingston County judge's ruling that parents of a teen who set fire to Howell High School last year must pay $715,000 in restitution is raising questions about the limits of parental liability in criminal cases.

On Monday, Livingston County Family Court Judge Susan Reck ordered James and Maria McEvoy of Howell to reimburse the school district's insurance carrier for damages their son, Sean, caused when he set the school ablaze.

But Reck delayed enforcement of the ruling until Feb. 12 to allow the family time to collect through their home owners policy with State Farm Insurance Companies, said Ed Davison, a Flint attorney representing the couple.

However, Davison said, conflicting state laws raise questions about how much the McEvoys must pay. State law limits parental responsibility to $2,500 for damages or injury caused by a child. But an amendment to the state's juvenile code gives the court discretion about how much liability parents incur for damages caused by a child.

The couple also are being held liable for the damages caused by their son without a chance to prove whether they were negligent, Davison said.

Sean, who was a 15-year-old freshman at the school, was receiving counseling and taking the antidepressant Paxil when he set the fire April 10, 2002. He pleaded guilty to adult charges including arson, burglary and malicious destruction of property.

But he was sentenced as a juvenile and placed in a residential treatment facility in Ann Arbor under the supervision of the state Family Independence Agency, according to Ron Plunkett, Sean McEvoy's attorney.

"They were very conscientious parents," Davison said. "Sean's psychiatrist said there was no way his parents or he could have foreseen what would happen. But the judge ruled they were liable for whatever Sean couldn't pay."

The McEvoys could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Davison said they are a "typical two-income middle class family." Paying the full $715,000 would bankrupt the couple.

Chris Matthysse, an attorney representing SET-SEG Inc., a Lansing-based organization providing insurance to state school districts, including Howell, said he was willing to negotiate the amount of reimbursement.

In her order Monday, Reck prevented the company from garnishing the couple's wages and other collection procedures until Feb. 12.

Bill Heemer, a claims section manager for State Farm in Livonia, said in a case involving restitution, many factors must be weighed.

Contact MARYANNE GEORGE at 734-665-5600.

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