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Your Child Receives a Death Threat from a Classmate > Parents May Consider Responding with a “Defensive Lawsuit”

The murder case of 14 year old Stefanie Rengel, the daughter of Toronto police officers, will soon draw to a close.  The sentencing of the teenaged murderers, a boy and a girl, is expected to take place in the next few weeks.

Excellent reporting appears within the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star of this case, which has been reported on extensively.

A senseless death, the immature killers were stuck in a jealously-filled boyfriend/girlfriend relationship.  Stefanie was unwittingly used as a pawn by the murderers to prove their love to each other: if you love me, then kill Stefanie.

Before her death, Stefanie’s parents acted quickly and properly in the face of unusual circumstances.  Arguably, as police officers, they achieved more than most parents when they warned the male killer (and his mother) to back off and leave their daughter alone.  In particular:

  • two years prior, the male murderer became known to Stefanie’s parents when he left a bizarre voice message on their home telephone, prompting a warning from Stefanie’s parents to leave her alone; and
  • two months prior to her death, the male murderer came to their home and while on their front lawn, advised Stefanie that his girlfriend was urging him to kill Stefanie.   Stefanie’s parents acted quickly and warned the male killer and his mother; they also may have warned the female killer – a death threat was issued against our daughter; stay away from her.

It is clear that Stefanie’s parents did everything they could.  They were proactive.  They remained composed within the ambit of the law.  They could never have imagined the situation escalating.

It is unknown whether criminal charges were laid but ultimately, that was not a decision for her parents.  In Canada, the police lay charges and the Crown decides whether to proceed with those charges.

Parents of Threatened Children – Your Legal Options to React to a Threat?

What would you do if your child was threatened with death?

Of course, you would probably seek to speak with the parents of the aggressor child.  But what if you left that discussion worried that those parents were not going to discipline their child appropriately?  That those parents might not do very much, at all?

Staying within the ambit of the law, parents do not have very many options.

The parents can wait for the criminal system to charge the aggressor with uttering a death threat – s. 264.1 of the Criminal Code of Canada.

The problem with the criminal system is that the charges will involve the youths only (and not their parents or others), so it is possible for the parents of the accused(s) to ‘ignore’ the problem.

In Stefanie’s case, unbelievably, the mother of the male murderer here appeared to have ignored the warning given, two months before Stefanie’s death, that her son had issued a death threat.

Further, if the police do not lay a charge of uttering a death threat, then the parents of the threatened child are forced to attempt to lay a charge privately.  Achieving a private prosecution  in Ontario is not easy.  You can go through the process yourself or hire a lawyer to assist.

You may have heard of Ontario’s Parental Responsibility Act, 2000 – but this only allows you to sue the parents of minors who have been convicted of damaging your property.  It is not applicable in a situation whereby your child has received a death threat.

Another Option for Worried Parents – Start a “Defensive Lawsuit” and Sue the Aggressor, his Parents and his School

For worried parents looking for another option, this writer advocates that they consider immediately starting a “defensive” civil lawsuit topublicize the death threat against their child.  The only purpose of such a defensive lawsuit would be to involve other adults and institutions; perhaps someone can assist the aggressor to understand the enormity of their actions.

A civil lawsuit can force an immediate reaction.  The parents of the threatened child can start a defensive civil lawsuit in a matter of days.  The defendants to the lawsuit can be served with the lawsuit papers within one or two weeks of the actual death threat.

You can force the parents of the aggressor and also the School of the aggressor to file their Statement of Defence within 6-8 weeks of the death threat.  You can expect that lawyers would be retained by the School(s) and perhaps for the aggressors themselves – so that hopefully some discussion about the consequences of issuing a death threat will have been fully considered by the aggressor and his/her parents.

What Would the Defensive Lawsuit Look Like?

Potentially, in Stefanie’s situation, there would have been eight (8) defendants, including:

  • aggressor #1 – who issued death threat
  • Mother of aggressor #1
  • Father of aggressor #1
  • School attended by aggressor #1
  • aggressor #2 – who urged aggressor #1 to issue death threat
  • mother of aggressor #2
  • father of aggressor #2
  • School attended by aggressor #2

The lawsuit might claim for battery, assault and intentional infliction of mental harm/suffering.

The lawsuit would likely also mention the criminal charge issued against the aggressor for the death threat or the private criminal prosecution being sought by the parents of the threatened child.

Sue the Aggressor.  Shine a bright light on the teenager who issues a death threat against your child.

Sue the Aggressor’s Parents or Guardians.  This same bright light should be focused on the parents of the teenager, who will either have to personally draft a Statement of Defence to the lawsuit (to save money) or be forced to hire a lawyer to respond to the lawsuit.  This process would, hopefully, be educational for those same parents – their child is said to have issued a death threat against another person!

The added incentive for the parent of the aggressor to discipline their child is that this becomes their problem, as their own financial well-being is threatened by the lawsuit.

Sue the Aggressor’s School.  The bright light should be focused on the school of the aggressor.  The school will then have to review its options: (1) ignore and deny that death threat is a concern of the school; or (2) investigate the situation to determine whether a death threat was uttered by one of their students.

Regarding the inclusion of the aggressor’s school, certainly this paper does not suggest engaging in a frivolous lawsuit or to start one that has no hope of succeeding.  But a death threat leaves the worried parent helpless – and starting a defensive lawsuit would be a way to alert everyone who potentially could make a difference that this situation needs attention.

It is reasonable to include the aggressor’s school, because they may be aware of unusual behaviour on the part of the aggressor.  They may be already dealing with the aggressor on a number of issues.  The school may have a very real interest in getting significantly involved in monitoring this aggressor.

How Far Would the Defensive Lawsuit Proceed?

Hopefully, the lawsuit would not proceed very far at all.

The defendants being forced to respond to the lawsuit by filing Statements of Defence would, hopefully, introduce some sanity to the situation.

Forcing the school to review the situation and to decide whether they will get involved, and to what extent, may also assist in peacefully resolving the issue.
Does Starting a Lawsuit Make Sense?  Will it Aggravate the Situation?  Does it Go Too Far?

The problem facing parents today is that their teenagers communicate differently and extensively in writing.

It may be that there are many more opportunities for a teenager to receive a death threat than in previous generations.

For example, much teenage chatter occurs on www.facebook.com, www.myspace.com and on hand-held cellphones.  A large number of people can “visit” a child’s web page and they can leave comments for your child to read.

If your child receives a death threat then your options might be:

  • advise the police and wait for a criminal charge to be laid;
  • speak to the parents of the aggressor child, hope that they discipline their child;
  • if the police do not lay a charge, attempt to achieve a private criminal prosecution; and/or
  • start a civil lawsuit and get others involved.

One option for parents is to start their own lawsuit in Ontario’s Small Claims Court.  The expenses associated with starting this lawsuit might be only approximately $200.  It should be noted here that Small Claims Court does not require lawyers to be retained, so the aggressor’s parents may not seek out or hire a lawyer to defend themselves.  The limit of your “damages” in Small Claims Court is $10,000.

Another option would be to hire a lawyer to start a defensive lawsuit and this would likely be commenced in Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice.  The cost here is approximately $2,500 to have your lawsuit issued and served (i.e. about $750-$900 for expenses relating to filing and serving the lawsuit; a few hours of a lawyer’s time to issue the lawsuit, etc).  As part of this lawsuit, your lawyer may claim an amount for damages – i.e. $100,000 or $250,000 – which is large enough to catch the attention of the defendants.

Once the lawsuit is started, the hope is that the aggressor’s parents will retain a lawyer – which is likely a good sign that the parents are taking this entire issue very seriously.  The lawyers for the School(s) will defend.  The idea behind the lawsuit is for the worried parents to convey to the defendants that: (1) the death threat was actually uttered; (2) that it was uttered by the aggressor child; and (3) the aggressor’s parents and the School should get involved to monitor the situation and do their best to prevent matters from escalating.

Once the worried parents see an appropriate response from the defendants, then their lawyer can very likely negotiate a quick and cost-free exit to the lawsuit.  The easiest solution would be that no party pays any other party money – each party just walks away from the lawsuit.

It is emphasized here that the purpose of a “defensive” lawsuit (in the writer’s view) is not to receive reimbursement or compensation.  Therefore, legal costs paid by the worried parents are unlikely to be reimbursed, by anyone.  The money you spend on Court fees and/or lawyer’s fees will not be repaid.  Your time spent on this issue (i.e. you miss time from work) will not be compensated.

It is an expensive cost but perhaps an acceptable price if your child is threatened with death.

Gregory Chang
Toronto Insurance Litigation Lawyer