Tragic Murder Tests the Boundaries of Liability for the Actions of Family Members

Many families in Florida admirably and nobly care for children with mental disabilities, even into the child’s adulthood. Doing so can be a huge obligation, financially and emotionally.

Many of those children may have disabilities that make them dangerous. What responsibility does a parent of a dangerous adult child have towards others? And if you’re injured by an adult, what right do you have to sue the child’s parents if they knew the child was dangerous?

One case decided earlier this year has set some guidelines on these questions.

The Tragic Case of the Thanksgiving Murders

The case involved a family at Thanksgiving dinner. At the dinner was a young adult named Paul. While he lived with his parents, the police had been to Paul’s house on ten prior occasions for “extremely violent and aggressive acts.” Paul had attacked others, discharged weapons, and refused to take his medications. Paul had previously attempted suicide by shooting himself in the chest.

Paul’s family provided for him, but they couldn’t prevent him from using the money to buy firearms. Eventually Paul was too much, and his parents bought him a condo, where a housekeeper reported that Paul had stopped taking medication and was refusing to leave the condo.

Despite all this, Paul’s parents invited him to the family’s annual Thanksgiving dinner, without permission or consent from the hosts, some of whom knew of Paul’s background and did not want him there.

After dinner, Paul got a gun from the car, and killed numerous members of the family in attendance.

The Lawsuit and the Appeal

The family sued Paul’s parents, alleging they were negligent in inviting Paul given his background. The trial court dismissed the case, and it went to appeal. The appellate court agreed, saying that the family had no claim against Paul’s parents.

The court pointed out that generally a third party is not responsible for the acts of another (absent a special relationship, such as landlord-tenant). The court also noted there is no case holding a parent responsible for the acts of an adult child, even one that’s financially or emotionally dependent on the parents.

The court agreed that those who control those who are dangerous have a responsibility for their actions. But the court felt that was more in the context of an institution, not the kind of control (or lack thereof) exercised by parents of an adult child.

The court also cited public policy reasons to deny the claim. The state wants to encourage families to nurture, take care of, and include children with mental disabilities (presumably non-violent ones) in family and life events. Making parents insurers of acts of the child would discourage them from doing so.

The case is unique in that it can be seen both ways. Looking at the facts in the case, it seems incredible that parents could invite a known danger into a home, without liability. Yet at the same time, law that would encourage parents to isolate disabled adult children is no good either. The situation is lose-lose, at best.

Determining who is liable for your injuries can be a difficult, fact-specific question. Talk to the Miami personal injury attorneys at Gerson & Schwartz, P.A. today for a free consultation about your injury case.


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