It's an unfortunate fact of the modern world that there's a lot of misinformation out there about the legal system. That's why we consider it an important part of our mission to inform the public about how the law actually works. To that end, we occasionally spotlight cases we've handled that illustrate how legal principles apply in the real world, and how people who behave carelessly can incur legal responsibility in ways that might not be immediately obvious.
One such case involved a teenage boy who killed himself as a result of incredibly careless behavior by adults who allowed him access to both alcohol and a loaded firearm. Through the determined efforts of our attorneys, we were ultimately able to hold the responsible parties accountable for the consequences of their reckless behavior.
How Does a Suicide Result in Civil Liability?
The facts of this case are fairly straightforward: a 16-year-old boy was hanging out at a friend's house with a small group of their peers. The friend's parents had provided alcohol to the group, and everyone present was drinking to excess. While heavily intoxicated, the young man wandered into a bedroom and discovered a loaded rifle lying against the wall. While we don't know exactly what happened next, the rifle ultimately discharged, killing him.
It's important to note that this young man was the furthest thing you can imagine from a typical suicidal profile. He grew up in a loving home and was a popular kid with a big network of friends. While it's certainly possible he suffered from some deep-seated depression that he kept well hidden from friends and family, that seems very unlikely based on his behavior. By all appearances, things were going well, and he had his whole life ahead of him.
I mention all this to dispel the idea that this kid was hell bent on killing himself and finally got the chance to do so. He had never expressed any suicidal ideation, never made attempts on his life or anything of the sort. As best we can tell, he just got drunk, was not in his right mind, and, as happens all too often when someone reaches a certain level of intoxication, did something highly irrational, with tragic results.
Again, we don't know what happened after he found the gun with much detail: he may well have just been playing around with it, not fully intending to harm himself. But whatever the case, he'd become heavily intoxicated and had easy access to a loaded firearm.
Normally, when someone commits suicide, our legal system doesn't hold anyone else responsible. However, when the suicide involves a child, and negligent behavior by adults directly contributes to their death, they bear some liability for that outcome.
Our firm ultimately brought a case against the homeowners on two separate grounds. First off, under Texas' liquor liability statutes, it's completely unlawful for anyone to serve alcohol to minor children, other than parents who are present while their child is consuming it. You can read more about this kind of negligence, known as social host liability, here.
The second claim that we brought against the defendants was for making the firearm easily accessible. It's negligent to leave a loaded firearm accessible to minors, plain and simple. Make no mistake, our firm's far from anti-gun and has no problem with the private ownership of firearms. In fact, many of the employees at our firm are avid gun enthusiasts or hunters. We regard owning firearms as a basic human right protected by our Constitution.
However, any right also carries responsibilities, and probably none more so than the right to bear arms. So training a child to use a firearm responsibly is one thing. It's also perfectly fine to store a gun in a secure location, so that your teenage son can grab it quickly if you're at the store and someone robs your house. But literally having a loaded rifle out in the open, where your son's friends can easily access it without supervision is simply not acceptable. And when someone's negligent storage of a gun leads directly to someone's death or injury, our civil justice system provides the most effective way to hold them accountable.
How Is it Just to Hold a Homeowner Responsible for an Accidental Shooting?
To be clear, we're not trying to place all of the responsibility for what happened here on the homeowners. Obviously, the teen who died still made a decision to handle a loaded gun, even if he made it with heavily impaired mental faculties. As a result, an attorney taking a case like this, or a jury deliberating over it, has to take that contribution into account in when evaluating the appropriate damages.
To better understand this point, suppose that this case had involved a drunk driver who was over-served by a bar and then killed themselves after crashing their car into a tree. (Texas' dram shop law allows victims and their families to hold alcohol providers partially liable in this situation.) A jury would have to determine how much fault to place on the bar and the drunk driver respectively. And the amount we could expect to recover from the bar would be reduced by whatever percentage the driver was considered responsible.
In the case at hand, this meant that the defendant's attorneys had the opportunity to try and shift as much of the blame as possible away from their clients. They were able to point the finger at anyone they can think of, from the teen who died to his parents to the other kids at the party. Fortunately, because the family made the decision to obtain our help, we were able to successfully resolve the case and obtain fair compensation for their staggering loss.
While it's easy to view all this as purely an abstract matter of legal doctrine, because we gained access to the dash cam of the officer who responded to the 911 call, we observed the incredible emotional devastation that her son's death unleashed upon the child's mother. It's a kind of anguish that's absolutely unimaginable until you've experienced it yourself, and watching this gut-wrenching video made us that much more motivated to obtain some measure of justice for our clients.