Accidental shooting with parents’ gun takes life of Alaskan teen

The news is filled with tragic stories of violence affecting children, including encounters with guns and accidental shootings. The suffering of the families involved in seeing their loved ones become the victim of gun violence is immense. However, the other side of the situation is almost as difficult for parents who have to face liability for injuries or death which their son or daughter's action has caused. In some cases parents can be liable for their own negligence supervising their kids with guns in the house.

Such was the case in a recent Alaska Supreme Court decision of United Services Auto Assn. v. Neary, in which the parents of children injured and killed in an accidental shooting by another child brought an action against the teen shooter and his parents for compensation, and to determine how much insurance coverage was available for such a catastrophic event. All four parents of the injured children brought claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress from the trauma of experiencing the harm caused to their loved ones.

After school visit turns tragic

Teen friends hanging out at a home after school is common in Alaska and the rest of the United States. If there are items which are dangerous to children in the house, parents may have a duty to supervise their children and others visiting. In Neary, a teen host decided to entertain his two 14-year-old friends by showing them his father's gun, which he removed from a gun cabinet.

After handling the gun for a while, the teen put a bullet in one chamber of the cylinder and pointed the revolver at himself and pulled the trigger; nothing happened. He then pointed the gun at his 14-year-old friend and pulled the trigger a second time; the gun fired, putting a bullet through his friend and killing him. The bullet then struck his other friend in the spine, where the bullet still remains.

One bullet-six victims

The four parents of the victims looked to the liability insurance policy of the shooter's parents to obtain coverage for all injuries, the physical and the emotional claims for all six parties. The parents of the victims contended that there were not only three individual coverage limits, but that there were multiple occurrences. The trial court agreed, and awarded the policy limit ($300,000) for each separate insured, the shooter and his two parents.

Interpreting the insurance policy

The Alaska Supreme Court looked at the specific language and other evidence under Alaska law to interpret the policy according to what reasonable expectations consumers have when purchasing a policy. The court found nothing in the policy or its declarations page suggesting that the policy limits would be increased with the number of insureds. The victims could not point to anything in the policy that the shooter's parents reasonably expected separate, individual coverage limits, and did not prevail arguing that the negligence of the shooter's parents constituted another "occurrence."

Shooting, not parental negligence, caused the injuries

The court ruled that the shooter's parents' failure to supervise their son was not the "unforeseen and unexpected" occurrence that caused the parents' damages; despite multiple acts of negligence, it was the single gunshot that was the one occurrence for purposes of liability coverage. The court reversed the award to the victims stating that coverage was limited to the one accident causing all the injuries.

Families of victims facing a tragedy similar to this case should consult a committed attorney who will investigate and explore all avenues in seeking the legal compensation you deserve.