The Michigan Supreme Court recently reinstated a lower court’s grant of summary judgment to a defendant shotgun owner following an accidental shooting because the plaintiff could not establish that any alleged breach constituted the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.
The case arose from the accidental discharge of a shotgun on the early morning of July 21, 2011. Thirty-year-old defendant Anthony Shafer was living with his grandparents, William and Mary Shafer. William turned the garage into a den where Anthony would entertain his friends. William kept a short-barrel shotgun, loaded with two shells, leaning against a wall in the garage. He was aware of the gun’s existence, that it was loaded, and its location.
On July 20, 2011, Anthony invited four friends to the garage: 16-year-old Jessica Bitner, 21-year-old Ian Gearhart, 25-year-old Stephanie Sutton, and a fourth friend. The group went swimming in the lake and hung out in the garage. Anthony and Gearhart went to purchase alcohol. When they returned, it was almost midnight, and William and Mary were asleep.
The group began drinking hard liquor. Anthony admits that there was marijuana in the garage at the time, but he denies that they smoked it. While the friends were drinking, Gearhart picked up the shotgun. Anthony took the gun to make sure there was nothing in the chamber and then gave it back to Gearhart. Gearhart continued to examine the gun and then placed it back in the corner.
The group went to the lake to go swimming again. At around 3:00 or 4:00 am, Bitner and Gearhart returned to the garage, while the others remained swimming. Bitner watched Gearhart pick up the shotgun and heard him say, “we better move this,” and she believed he was going to place the gun on a shelf. Bitner soon heard a “big bang” and was shot in the leg.
Via her mother, Bitner brought a negligence action against Anthony Shafer. Shafer moved for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10), arguing he did not owe Bitner a duty, and if he did, it was not breached. Bitner countered that the defendant’s duty arose through a special relationship between Bitner and Shafer, which was formed when Shafer and Gearhart picked up the underage Bitner and her friend and provided them with alcohol at his house. She argued that the duty was breached when Shafer allowed Gearhart, who had been drinking, to return alone to the garage with the minor Bitner, where Shafer had not secured, safetied, or unloaded the gun, despite knowing that Bitner and Gearhart where likely intoxicated and that Gearhart was interested in the weapon.
The trial court granted the defendant’s motion, finding that there was no special relationship between Bitner and Shafer, that the shooting was unforeseeable, and that Shafer did not breach the limited duties owed to licensees. The plaintiff appealed. In March 2014, the Michigan Court of Appeals held that Shafer owed Bitner a duty of care and that a reasonable jury could determine that he breached that duty.
The defendant appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court, which reversed the judgment of the court of appeals and reinstated the June 2012 order of the Wayne County Circuit Court granting summary judgment to Anthony Shafer.
In reaching its holding, the Michigan Supreme Court first summarized the legal standards. To establish a prima facie case of negligence, a plaintiff must introduce evidence sufficient to establish that (1) the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff, (2) the defendant breached that duty, (3) the defendant’s breach was a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries, and (4) the plaintiff suffered damages. Michigan has defined “proximate cause” as “that which in a natural and continuous sequence, unbroken by any new, independent cause, produces the injury, without which such injury would not have occurred.”
In the current case, the court reasoned, Shafer’s conduct regarding the shotgun did not constitute a proximate cause of Bitner’s injury. Ian Gearhart’s subsequent actions in picking up the shotgun again after he returned to the garage, cycling a shell in the chamber of the shotgun, and pulling the trigger constituted an intervening cause of the plaintiff’s injury, which broke the chain of causation and relieved Shafer of liability.
Here, Gearhart’s intervening conduct regarding the shotgun was not reasonably foreseeable. Since reasonable minds could not differ that the plaintiff could not establish causation under the specific circumstances of this case, Bitner’s claim failed as a matter of law.
Personal injury lawyer Kelly Neumann at the Neumann Law Group represents victims of accidents throughout Michigan from offices in Traverse City and Grand Rapids. Call us at (231) 463-0122 or at (616) 717-5666 for a free consultation.
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