Tennessee Court Rules Gun Owner May Be Liable for Suicide Victim’s Death
Most gun-related deaths in the United States are suicides rather than homicides. According a 2015 report in the New York Times, “More than 60 percent of people in this country who die from guns die by suicide.” In addition, a majority of successful suicides are committed using a gun.
Given these sobering figures, it is reasonable to ask: Is a gun owner liable for personal injury or negligence if he or she allows a suicide victim to access their weapon? The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently addressed this question, and surprisingly answered, “Yes.”
Psychiatrist Faces Trial Over Death of Ex-Girlfriend
The victim in this tragic case divorced her husband in 2012. At the time she was dating the defendant, who happened to be a psychiatrist. The defendant and the victim had an on-again, off-again relationship for about three years.
During this period, the victim suffered from depression and related mental health issues. Not only was she taken prescription antidepressants, but at one point in January 2014 she was hospitalized for an overdose and involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility. The defendant was aware of these events, and in fact was living with the victim at his residence.
Several months later, the defendant acquired a handgun, which was a gift from his father. He stored the gun and its ammunition in an unlocked cabinet in his house. One day, in October 2014, he showed the gun and its location to the victim and her son. Shortly thereafter, the defendant told the victim he was breaking up with her again, which led her to “storm out” of the house in anger.
Despite this incident, a few days later the defendant agreed to let the victim stay at his house while he was traveling out of town. When the defendant returned to his house on the afternoon of November 9, 2014, he found the victim unconscious. She had shot herself with his gun. The defendant called for medical attention, but the victim ultimately died.
The executor of the victim’s estate–who was also her ex-husband–sued the defendant for negligence. Briefly, the lawsuit argued the defendant had a duty to “properly store and maintain” his firearm “in a safe manner,” and that his failure to do so led to the victim’s death, particularly given that he was aware of her “fragile mental state and suicidal tendencies.” A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, however, holding the defendant did not owe the victim any such duty.
But the Court of Appeals disagreed. Given the victim’s “history of depression and previous suicide attempt,” in addition to the defendant breaking up with her, the appeals court said it was “reasonably foreseeable” that the defendant would try to hurt herself “by utilizing the deadly weapon” that he showed her just two weeks earlier. At a minimum, there was a question for the jury as to causation, so the appeals court remanded the case for trial.
Have You Lost a Family Member Due to Negligence?
Suicide is always preventable. If you know someone who is or may become suicidal it is critical to seek immediate help. And if you have lost a loved one due to any act of negligence by a third party, you should speak with a qualified Knoxville personal injury lawyer about your legal options. Contact the offices of Fox Farley Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, at 866-862-4855.