The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently ruled that gun owners may be negligent for shootings with their stolen firearms in specific situations, if they fail to properly lock up the weapons when they know someone with a history of violence has access to them.
The state’s high court, however, rejected broader firearm liability claims, dismissing the argument that gun owners should be held responsible for harm done with their weapons in all theft cases.
The 28-page ruling arose from the 1999 fatal shooting of a Westminster police officer by a man with a history of assaults and mental illness who stole a .357 Magnum handgun from his father’s poorly locked gun case.
“This decision is a bit of a victory for police officers,” said David Yas, publisher of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly. “It extends a little more protection to them as far as unguarded guns.”
Westminster police officer Lawrence Jupin was shot three times in May 1999 by Jason Rivers, a paranoid schizophrenic who was ruled mentally incompetent to stand trial. Rivers had unscrewed the hinges on his father’s gun cabinet and taken one of his approximately 30 firearms.
Rivers shot Jupin during a chase through woods in Westminster, about 30 miles north of Worcester. Jupin had a heart attack after the shooting, spent 3 1/2 years in a coma and died in March 2004.
Rivers had stolen the weapon from a homemade cabinet made of particle board in the basement of a home owned by Sharon Kask, the longtime girlfriend of Rivers’ father.
Jupin’s family sued Kask, claiming that she was liable for the harm caused by the gun; that she created a public nuisance by not properly storing the gun; and that she was negligent for not securing the gun in her home when she knew Rivers had a history of violence.
A trial judge had issued a summary judgment, taking the case from a jury and ruling for Kask on all three counts.
The Supreme Judicial Court agreed with the judge on the first two claims, rejecting the notion that Kask was generally responsible for the harm caused by the gun and or that she had created a public nuisance.
However, the SJC did find that Rivers’ unstable, violent history opened the door for potential negligence.
“At the very least, Kask should have foreseen that Jason — who she knew had a history of violence, had recent problems with the law, and have been under psychiatric observation — might use his unsupervised access to the house to take a weapon from the basement gun cabinet, and subsequently use the weapon in the commission of a crime,” the opinion reads.
The case has been sent back to the lower court.
“My client, officer Jupin’s mother, is ecstatic because she is finally going to get her day in court,” said lawyer Douglas L. Fox, who represents Joanne D. Jupin and her family.
“Wrongdoers who illegally possess firearms because of the negligence of others, now there is a legal remedy,” Fox said.
The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington, D.C., hailed the ruling a significant state precedent.
“It now allows liability against people who improperly store their guns any time you have knowledge that a particular person has access,” said Elizabeth Haile, a staff attorney for the Brady Center, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Jupins.
The National Rifle Association did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment.
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