Just because a person fails to do something that may clearly be the right thing, doesn’t mean he or she is legally responsible for the results. Rather, negligence law operates under what some may find a strange principle: it’s only negligent to act in a certain irresponsible manner if you have a legally-established duty to act responsibly toward a person who may be injured as a result. In Knight v. Merhige, Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeals explains this idea as it applies to the heartbreaking case of a family murder.
The case arose from a tragic incident in which the Defendants’ 35-year-old son shot and killed family members during a 2009 Thanksgiving Day celebration in Jupiter. Representatives of the victims later sued the Defendants for negligence.
Son had a history of “irrational violence,” according to the Court, which included “extremely violent and aggressive acts” as well as various threats of violence toward family members. Some of this violence was based on Son’s belief that his uncle – one of the victims – had somehow done him wrong, along with an intense jealousy toward his sisters. Police officers were often called the Defendants’ home as a result of verbal threats to and physical attacks on family members, as well as incidents in which he discharged or threatened to discharge firearm. He was later deemed “legally disabled” as a result of this fixation on violence and involuntarily committed under Florida’s Baker Act three times. He also attempted suicide by shooting himself in the chest.
In 2009, Defendants procured a Miami condo for Son to live in they also gave him spending money, which the representatives later said he used in part to purchase firearms. A housekeeper reported to Defendants that he had stopped taking his prescribed medication in the months before the shooting.
The Court said Son didn’t typically attend the annual holiday gathering. In fact, the household that hosted the event a year earlier threatened to cancel it if Defendants brought him with them. Nevertheless, the Defendants invited Son to join them at the Thanksgiving dinner the following year. After excusing himself from the dinner table, Son got a gun from his car and returned to shoot and kill his uncle and two sisters as well as a six-year-old girl who was sleeping in her bedroom.
Son was sentenced to life in prison after entering a plea deal in a separate criminal case.
A district court dismissed the negligence case, however, finding that the representatives failed to state a claim on which relief could be granted. The Fourth District agreed. Specifically, the Court said the Defendants didn’t owe a legal duty to their family members to prevent Son from coming to the dinner, warn them that he was off of his meds or control his behavior on the night of the shooting.
In order to state a claim for negligence, a party must allege that the person being sued owed it a duty of care, that the person breached this duty, and that the breach resulted in injury to the party. While the representatives argued that Defendants created a “zone of foreseeable risk” by inviting Son to the dinner, the Court said that foreseeability doesn’t always create legal duty. “Generally, there is no duty to control the conduct of a third person to prevent that person from causing physical harm to another,” the Court said.
The Court acknowledged, however, that certain exceptions to this rule can arise based on a party’s “special relationship” with the people injured. “These relationships are protective by nature, requiring the defendant to guard his charge against harm from others,” the Court explained. “For example, a common carrier has a legal duty toward its passengers to exercise reasonable care to prevent physical attacks by third persons.”
That said, the Court added that Florida case law makes clear that these special relationship exceptions do not extend to family relationships. The Court affirmed dismissal of the case.
As this case makes clear, the law surrounding negligence claims and be complicated. If you or a loved one has been injured by another’s negligence, it’s important to have an experienced, competent attorney in your corner to help you seek any and all available remedies. Contact the South Florida personal injury lawyers at Anidjar & Levine for a free initial consultation. We represent clients throughout the region, including in Hialeah, Pompano Beach and Boca Raton, and are dedicated to helping people get back on their feet after an accident. Call the firm’s Fort Lauderdale offices today at 800-747-3733.
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