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COA: Mother not liable for death as gun buyer

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The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment in a negligence claim in favor of a woman whose husband killed her daughter with a gun she purchased for him, finding the designated evidence doesn't show proximate cause.

In Gary Lewis v. Estate of Alvis Wynn, et al., No. 10A01-0804-CV-157, Gary Lewis filed a negligence claim against his mother-in-law, Phyllis Wynn, following the death of his wife, Linda. Wynn's husband, Alvis, shot and killed Linda and himself with a gun Phyllis purchased for him. Gary claimed Phyllis procured the gun used in the shooting and "negligently stored, entrusted, monitored, or allowed" Alvis to get possession of it.

Phyllis and Alvis were married, divorced, and remarried to each other over the course of nearly five decades. Throughout that time, Phyllis claimed Alvis was abusive, manipulative, and had a temper. Linda had claimed when she was a teenager in 1980 that Alvis had raped her, which led to the divorce. Phyllis and Alvis remarried a few years later, and then again filed for divorce in 2004.

Phyllis lived next door to Alvis during their separation and had changed the locks to her home. She allowed him to come in when she wasn't home to take his possessions, and she contended that's when he took all the guns from her home, including the one used in the shooting.

On appeal, Phyllis argued Alvis owned the guns and she couldn't be liable for negligently entrusting the guns because she didn't own them.

The Court of Appeals decided the designated evidence in this case doesn't show proximate cause because Linda's death wasn't foreseeable at the time Phyllis bought the gun. The designated evidence doesn't indicate when she bought the gun and the record is devoid of evidence she was aware of the threat of violence toward others when she bought it. Her own testimony suggests she bought the guns before they were separated, but doesn't say which separation.

"One who purchases a gun is not forever liable for all acts involving the gun, but only for those acts that are foreseeable at the time the gun is purchased," wrote Judge Melissa May.

The evidence also shows Phyllis wasn't negligent in storing or monitoring the guns because she had changed her locks and restricted Alvis' access to her home before the shooting.

Lewis also argued some accounts Phyllis contributed money to that were either in Alvis' name or joint accounts that weren't considered part of his estate should be used to satisfy any judgment against Alvis in his Wrongful Death Claim. The Court of Appeals held the trial court didn't err in holding Phyllis' contributions to the disputed accounts aren't subject to claims on Alvis' estate.

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