Supplying a Drunk Guest with a Gun May Expose Utah Gun Owner to Legal Liability

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Feb 9, 2015

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The Utah Supreme Court held that a gun owner may be held liable for supplying a gun to a drunk person, even if the drunk individual is a guest in the gun owner’s home.  According to Utah’s court, “gun owners have a duty in tort to exercise reasonable care in supplying their guns to intoxicated individuals … [and] Supplying an intoxicated individual with a gun, just as supplying a car to such a person, creates a foreseeable risk of harm.”  While the Court’s holding may still exempt owners if an intoxicated person injures himself, the decision clearly cautions gun owners against carelessly allowing access to dangerous weapons to guests who are not in condition to respect proper firearm safety.

Woman’s Estate Sues Utah Gun Owner after Negligent Shooting

The facts of Herland v Izatt are briefly as follows: during an evening of heavy drinking at a party hosted by Travis Izatt, Neely Creager picked up a loaded handgun that was easily accessible and fatally shot herself in the head.  All parties to the case agree that the shooting was accidental, but Creager’s estate filed a lawsuit against Izatt for negligence because he was not only the host of the party but also the owner of the handgun.  Alleging that Izatt was negligent to leave a dangerous weapon where clearly intoxicated guests could access it, the Creager estate sought financial damages for Neely’s unfortunate death.

A lower court in Utah dismissed the case by stating that Izatt did not owe a duty of care to Creager that required he lock up his handgun to avoid accidental shootings by his intoxicated guests. The Supreme Court of Utah disagreed, however, and held that gun owners have a duty to keep their weapons secured when intoxicated individuals are present.  Although the Court made no determination on whether or not Izatt violated the duty, the decision will allow the case to proceed to a jury trial for a full review of the facts.

Utah Supreme Court Places Duty to Secure Weapon on Gun Owners

Although in Utah a party doesn’t ordinarily have an affirmative duty of care for another, the Court found that the foreseeability of injury when a gun was placed in the hands of an “incompetent or impaired individual” imposes a duty on gun owners to keep weapons secured.  The Court is not treading new legal ground in this decision – foreseeability of harm is a common tool used to prescribe an affirmative duty of care.  Business owners can be found liable for harm caused by intoxicated or incompetent individuals for allowing access them access to products or services when doing so could foreseeably cause harm, and the Utah Supreme Court extended to gun owners this theory that a responsible party who carelessly entrusts a dangerous product on an intoxicated customer or guest can be found legally responsible for harm caused.

The Court went on argue that not only was the basis for finding an affirmative duty to gun owners legally supported under negligence law, but was sound public policy.  Utah grants a fairly broad protection to gun ownership, but the legislature has enforced restrictions against unreasonably careless distribution.  The Court noted, “Utah public policy supports imposing a duty on gun owners to exercise reasonable care in supplying their guns to others — such as children and incompetent or impaired individuals [who] they know, or should know, are likely to use the gun in a manner that creates a foreseeable risk of injury to themselves or third parties,” and found that the state’s gun law, by imposing restrictions on who could purchase and use guns, supported the conclusion that gun owners can be negligent for supplying intoxicated or incompetent guests access to firearms.

Limitation on Utah Gun Owners Duty to Hide Firearms

The Utah Supreme Court determined that gun owners in the state have an affirmative duty to not supply weapons to intoxicated or incompetent individuals, but noted that the duty was restricted to affirmative actions.  The Court wrote that, “[I]n cases involving use of a gun, such as this one, the affirmative act giving rise to a duty may be (1) directly supplying or handing a gun to another, (2) placing the gun within reach of another, or (3) consenting (either explicitly or implicitly) to the use of the gun by another.”

A further limitation is the state’s position on comparative negligence, which is the legal theory that the injured party contributions to the incident minimize, or sometimes eliminate, the legal liability of the defendant.  Here the Court noted that despite this newly recognized duty imposed on gun owners, “[I]ntoxicated individuals will likely find it difficult to recover for injuries that are caused, at least in part, by their own intoxication. Utah’s comparative fault rule bars recovery where the plaintiff is fifty percent or more at fault.” 

Given these limitations, Ms. Creager’s estate still has a long way to go before demonstrating that Izatt was negligence.  After the Utah Supreme Court found that gun owners owe an affirmative duty to keep weapons out of the hands of incompetent or intoxicated individuals, however, the case will at least be decided on its merits.

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