Do Parents Have a Duty to Protect Relatives From Their Violent Son?

In a recent case, a Florida appellate court considered a tragic shooting incident whereby a couple’s 35-year-old son Paul shot and killed his family members at Thanksgiving. Sixteen family members were in attendance. The couple attended every year, but their son didn’t. In fact, the year before, the host had told the couple he would cancel dinner if they brought Paul.

The reason for this statement was because Paul had a history of violence. He was showing signs of aggression and chronic violence in his early 20s. He threatened his immediate and extended family. Two years later he was deemed legally disabled.

He lived with his parents from 1994-2006. During that time, the police were called 10 times based on his threats of violence and refusal to take his prescribed psychotropic medication. He was involuntarily committed at one point and at another, shot himself in the chest. Paul had a grudge against his uncle and sisters. He was violent towards his sisters and she had once gotten a restraining order against him. In spite of his issues with threats and firearms, the couple didn’t do anything to prevent him from buying firearms with money they gave him.

In early 2009, however, the couple got him a condo and wouldn’t let him come to their home. He became a recluse, seeing only his housekeeper. The housekeeper reported to the parents that he had stopped getting treatment and stopped taking medication. In spite of that, the couple invited the son to Thanksgiving. He asked whether his sisters and uncle would be attending. Just before the party, the mother expressed concern about Paul’s attendance, saying she hoped he wouldn’t kill everyone at the party.

That night, the hostess was surprised that Paul was coming. But when he came in, nobody kept him from coming in. The family ate. Paul went to get something from his car and came back with a firearm, shooting his uncle’s wife, killed both of his sisters and wounded his brother in law. He killed the hosts’ six-year-old daughter while she slept.

The victims’ estates had sued the couple, alleging negligence. The circuit court dismissed the case for failure to state a cause of action. Meanwhile, Paul was sentenced to life imprisonment. The hosts sued for their six year old daughter and his uncle sued for his wife. The sister’s husband sued on behalf of himself and his deceased wife.

The different complaints alleged the couple created a foreseeable zone of risk by inviting their son to dinner knowing of his threats of violence. One complaint invoked the “undertaker’s doctrine” which assigns a duty to supervise and control to someone who is a custodian with a special relationship to the person who causes harm. The other alleged the couple had concealed their dinner invitation even though they had superior knowledge that he was likely to do harm and completely supported him.

The circuit court dismissed the complaints stating that the couple had no duty to control their emancipated son. It also found there was no special relationship nor an ability to control their son.

The estates appealed, arguing that a plaintiff is entitled to legal protection whenever personal injuries are a foreseeable consequence of a defendant’s conduct.

The appellate court explained that a legal duty in the context of a civil suit involving a criminal act like the one here is predicated on a defendant’s special relationship to an injured party or ability to control an aspect of a criminal act. The parents here had no duty to control their adult son’s conduct. Family members have no obligation to protect other adult family members from each other.

In the absence of a special relationship, a duty could also arise if the defendant was in actual or constructive control of an instrumentality, the premises or the person. Here there was no allegation that the parents were in control of the gun or the other family member’s home. That the couple financially supported their son and could control if he cam to family gatherings was not enough to generate a duty to protect those attending the dinner from their son. The circuit court had correctly dismissed the case.

If you are seriously hurt in an accident that is somebody else’s fault, contact the knowledgeable Florida personal injury attorneys at Friedman, Rodman & Frank toll-free for a free consultation at (877) 448-8585.

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