In the aftermath of tragedy, it is a natural reaction to assign blame to others, whether attribution is justified or not. This impulse is at the heart of the Fourth District Court of Appeals’ recent decision in Knight v. Merhige, in which the court held that the parents of a man who fatally shot several relatives at a family gathering on Thanksgiving of 2009 could not be held liable for their son’s conduct. Although the decision will likely do little to mend fractured intra-familial ties, the Fourth District’s holding demarcates a clear line with respect to when someone may be held liable for the conduct of another.
As noted above, the suit at issue follows a tragic incident on November 26, 2009. On that day, the son of the defendants in this case, who was 35 at the time, retrieved a gun during an annual family get-together and fatally shot four of his relatives, including both of his sisters, and seriously injured another. After the shooting, the son pled guilty to the murders and was sentenced to life imprisonment. The son had a long history of violence and mental health issues and had on several previous occasions threatened and assaulted members of his family. Although he had been prohibited from attending Thanksgiving festivities the year before at the request of the relatives who were hosting, his parents invited him to attend in 2009 without either seeking permission of the hosts or informing other family members. Until shortly before the shooting, the son lived with the parents, but his parents had recently elected to set up him up in his own condominium while continuing to provide him with financial support, some of which was used to procure firearms. A housekeeper who cleaned the son’s condominium and routinely reported to parents informed them that he had ceased attending mental health treatment and taking medication.
Given the context of the son’s assault, relatives brought three separate wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits against the parents, which were consolidated for appeal. Although they were distinct, the suits were predicated on similar theories of negligence. Specifically, the lawsuits alleged the following: 1) by furtively inviting their son, the parents created a “foreseeable zone of risk” for the relatives, and they failed to exercise prudent care in managing the risk they created; and 2) the parents had a “special relationship” to their son such that they had to duty to exercise reasonable care in his “supervision, guidance, control, direction, security, monitoring and management,” and failure to exercise reasonable care amounted to a breach of this duty. The trial court dismissed each of the suits, noting the general rule that “there is no duty to control the conduct of a third person to prevent him from causing physical harm to another,” and holding that the respective plaintiffs had failed to overcome the burden of demonstrating a special relationship that would give rise to a legal duty to control the son’s conduct. The plaintiffs appealed the dismissals.
The Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision. Although the appeals court assumed for the sake of argument that liability may arise based purely on the creation of a foreseeable zone of risk, the court refused to apply such a standard in this case, for it involved injury caused by the criminal acts of a third party. Instead, the court adhered to the traditional rule that such liability would only arise if there exists a “special relationship” between the defendant and the injured party or third party tortfeasor that gives rise to a distinct duty of care. The court further noted that public policy considerations compelled their decision to limit liability in this manner.
First, the court summarily rejected the argument that there exists a special relationship between the defendants and injured family members in this case, since “family members owe no heightened obligation to protect other adult family members from each other.” Next, the court held that a special relationship did not exist between the parents and their adult son. Although the parents provided their son with full financial support, the court held that control arising from financial support is insufficient to impose liability and that the parents did not otherwise have the ability to exercise control tantamount to “legal custody” over their emancipated, adult son. Finally, turning to the “zone of risk” analysis, the court concluded that, although the affirmative act of inviting an emotionally troubled family member to Thanksgiving festivities could create a foreseeable zone of risk for the other attendees, public policy considerations compelled the court to not impose a duty of care under the circumstances. Specifically, the court stated, “[a] holding that the [defendants] owed a legal duty to the members of their family and extended family in this case would discourage families from providing a haven to troubled relatives for fear of civil liability,” and such a result would do damage to families and society generally.
Beyond illuminating the strife that arises when litigation ensues among family members, this case demonstrates the legal complexities that arise when one tries to impose fault on a party beyond the party who commits a tortious act. However, as in this case, receiving full recovery for one’s injuries occasionally depends on successfully ascribing blame to a third party. If you have recently been injured by a person financially unable to compensate you for your injuries, the South Florida injury attorneys at Frankl & Kominsky are prepared to offer assistance in determining whether a third party can be held liable and getting you the recovery you are owed. For a free case evaluation, click here or call 1-855-800-8000.