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COA: Stolen gun’s owner shielded from suit in fatal shooting

February 14, 2019

The Indiana Court of Appeals denied a mother’s argument of negligence against a gun owner whose stolen handgun caused the death of her son. The appellate court found the gun owner was shielded from liability under Indiana Code section 34-30-20-1.

While parked in a public area, Christopher Lee left his loaded handgun on the seat of his truck, leaving it unlocked and unattended. C.O., a minor, walked by and took the gun from the truck, took it home and showed it to his friend Matthew Kendall. In the process, the handgun discharged, shooting and killing Kendall.

Shelley Nicholson, on behalf of her son, Kendall, sued Lee, alleging that the storage of his handgun in open view inside an unlocked and unattended vehicle was negligent and a proximate cause of Kendall’s death.

Lee filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings, arguing that regardless of how he stored the gun, if it was stolen he was statutorily immune from liability for any resulting harm. The trial court granted the motion before Nicholson had a chance to respond to it, prompting her motion for reconsideration on her timely brief in opposition. The trial court denied.

Nicholson appealed the trial court’s decision, arguing it erred in granting Lee’s motion for judgment and in finding that Indiana Code section 34-30-20-1 barred her claim as a matter of law. Specifically, Nicholson stated she does not claim Lee is liable based on C.O.’s actions, and thus, the statute does not apply.

Instead, she claimed Lee himself to be negligent in leaving the gun unattended and available in a public place, having “failed to satisfy the most basic, non-burdensome step available for safe storage.”

The appellate court cited Estate of Heck ex rel. Heck v. Stoffer, 786 N.E.2d 265, 270 (Ind. 2003), noting that Indiana Code section 34- 30-20-1 was enacted by the Indiana legislature less than one year after Estate of Heck was published, more than likely in direct response.

“When viewed through this lens, it becomes apparent that the General Assembly intended to shield gun owners from liability for failing to safely store and keep guns, when the gun that was unsafely stored is procured by a crime and then later used to commit another crime. And notwithstanding Nicholson’s creative argument, the text of the statute likewise supports this conclusion,” Judge John Baker wrote.

“It cannot seriously be questioned that Lee’s failure to safely store his gun is ‘related to’ C.O.’s later use of that same gun. In other words, the statute immunizes Lee from liability both for the acts of C.O. and for his own failure to properly store the gun,” Baker continued.

The appellate court further denied Nicholson’s additional assertion that negligently storing a handgun such that it is easily accessible by children could be found to be a “transfer” of the gun subject to strict liability.

“In sum, we find that both the plain language of Indiana Code section 34-30-20-1 as well as the fact that it was clearly enacted in response to our Supreme Court’s decision in Estate of Heck support the trial court’s order granting judgment on the pleadings to Lee,” Baker concluded. “As a matter of law, he is immunized from liability in this case, whether the focus is on C.O.’s actions or Lee’s own failure to store his gun safely and properly.”

The case is Shelley Nicholson, as the Mother of Matthew Kendall v. Christopher S. Lee, 18A-CT-1949.

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