Tennessee Court Considers Whether Gun Owners May Owe Duty To Protect Others From Using Their Guns

Gun ownership is an issue about which many Tennesseans feel passionately. While individuals may disagree about when and where individuals should be allowed to have guns, all agree that gun owners have a responsibility to use their guns safely. Recently, a case in the Tennessee Court of Appeals raised a novel issue in gun ownership, asking whether a gun owner owes a duty to protect an individual whom he or she knows is mentally unstable or suicidal from using his or her gun. This question potentially broadens the responsibility that gun owners have not only to themselves but also to others.

In this Tennessee wrongful death case, the personal representative of C.C. brought claims against J.W. after C.C. committed suicide in 2014. C.C. was a nurse with a husband and young child when she began an affair with a doctor, J.W., at the hospital where she worked. When her husband became aware of the affair, they divorced, and the husband eventually sought full custody of their child. While going through these proceedings, C.C. became increasingly depressed and upset and eventually sought the help of a psychiatrist. She was prescribed medication but continued to struggle with depression. In January 2014, C.C. attempted suicide for the first time by overdosing on her medications and mixing them with alcohol. She was transported to a local hospital, and J.W. was alerted. Eventually she was released into J.W.’s custody with instructions to receive further mental health care. Over the following weeks, C.C. learned that her ex-husband had been granted full custody of their child. She and J.W. began to disagree and temporarily separated. Several weeks later, they reconciled.

At around that time, J.W. inherited a gun and ammunition from a family member. While C.C. was visiting J.W.’s home one night, J.W. showed her the pistol and where it was located. J.W. and C.C. continued to have an on and off relationship. While C.C. also continued to see her therapist, she never told him about the attempted suicide, and J.W. did not share this information either. As a result, C.C. was not prescribed any further medication or treatment. Shortly before her suicide, C.C. and J.W. had another fight when J.W. attempted to break off the relationship. While J.W. was away on business, C.C. asked if she could stay at his home while she looked for new housing. J.W. agreed. While in his home, C.C. shot herself with the pistol that J.W. had shown her. By the time he returned home, C.C. was dead. The personal representative of C.C.’s estate sued J.W. for negligence, arguing that J.W. should have kept and stored his gun in a safe manner where it was not accessible to C.C. The representative further argued that J.W. knew of C.C.’s precarious mental state and owed a duty to protect her from the possibility that she might harm herself.

Following discovery and motions for summary judgment, the trial court determined that J.W. did not owe a duty of care to C.C. and was not negligent. It held that it was not foreseeable that C.C. would commit suicide with J.W.’s gun because C.C. had not had any suicidal issues since her January 2014 incident, and nothing in the record alerted J.W. to the possibility that his gun would be used in a suicide. The representative of the estate appealed.

On appeal, the Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s ruling. It concluded that, under Tennessee law, when evaluating negligence claims, the foreseeability of the possible harm is one of the most important elements to be considered. The Court of Appeals agreed with the estate that here it was foreseeable that C.C. might harm herself using J.W.’s gun, given her history of depression, suicide, and self-harm. The Court of Appeals noted that although C.C. did not attempt suicide between the January 2014 incident and her eventual death, she did experience several additional stressful and traumatic events during this time period, of which J.W. was aware, including the loss of custody of her son and her separation with J.W. Based on her prior history and these more recent events, the Court of Appeals held that it was foreseeable that C.C. might harm herself with J.W.’s gun. The Court further concluded that J.W.’s decision to show her the gun and give her access to it during this time created an unreasonable risk of harm. Based on these conclusions, the Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision that J.W. did not owe a duty of care to C.C.

This case raises significant questions for gun owners who allow those with suicidal tendencies or mental instability to access their guns. Pending the possibility of an appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court, gun owners should carefully consider how they protect their guns and who they allow to access them in order to avoid the risk of liability. If you are concerned about how this ruling might affect you, Tennessee wrongful death attorney Eric Beasley can advise you on whether this decision might affect your gun safety practices. For more information on seeking redress and compensation for your injuries, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

Tennessee Court Denies Prisoner’s Negligence Claims After Attack, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, August 8, 2017

Tennessee Court Upholds Conclusion That Officer Was Not Responsible For Accident, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, July 7, 2017.

Tennessee Court Upholds Exclusion of Evidence for Lack of Relevance, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, May 2, 2017.