Keep Your Guns Locked Up or Face Lawsuits

Posted December 6, 2012 in Personal Injury by

David De Lossy/Photodisc/Thinkstock

If you don’t lock up your guns – or at least keep them unloaded – when you have guests, you could be sued when something goes wrong.

One Vermont family is finding out just how horribly wrong things can go: They are being sued for wrongful death in the wake of an accidental shooting between two house guests, which left one of them dead. The suit alleges that the family was negligent, because the weapon involved in the incident was loaded, unsecured and belonged to a family member.


Tragic Facts

Jeffrey Charbonneau, 24, and his friend Nick Bell, 25, ran into their friend Jim Goodwin at dinner on the night before Thanksgiving 2010. Because their homes were crowded with family members in for the holiday, Jim invited the two friends to stay at his family’s house for the night while his parents and brother were away with family.

The next morning, Bell came into the room where Charbonneau was sleeping to wake him up and get going back to their own families for Thanksgiving. The bedroom belonged to Goodwin’s brother, Charlie, an avid hunter. Bell found what turned out to be a loaded .22-caliber semi-automatic rifle with no safety engaged hanging on the wall and, in what he likely meant to be a joke, Bell walked around Charbonneau’s bed holding the gun. It discharged, and a bullet entered Charbonneau’s heart from his side, killing him almost instantly.

Bell pled no contest in May to the felony of manslaughter, and to the misdemeanors of assault with a weapon and reckless endangerment, according to a local news report. He was sentenced to a year in jail. 


Family Responsible for Dangerous Conditions

“The owner of the gun, Jim’s brother [Charlie], wasn’t even there,” explains David Cleary, a  lawyer with Cleary, Shahi & Aicher in Rutland, Vermont, who is representing Charbonneau’s family in a lawsuit against Mr. and Mrs. Goodwin, as well as the two sons. “But Jim should have known his brother’s room had something dangerous about it.”

David Cleary

That’s the heart of the case against the Goodwins: “It’s a typical premises liability case,” says Cleary. “If you ask a guest over, you have a duty to maintain your premises in reasonably safe condition. If he slips and falls on your icy stairs, it’s the same thing.”


Second Amendment Long Shot

The Goodwins are relying on the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms, according to Cleary, but it’s not likely to be a successful defense, as they still must defend against the negligence charge. Plus they weren’t even bearing the arm that killed Charbonneau.

Cleary says the constitutional right to bear arms doesn’t negate a gun-owner’s legal obligations to use and store weapons in a safe manner. “They might as well have pled freedom of religion.”

If you’re out in the woods hunting, and you negligently shoot someone in an accident, you can’t use the Second Amendment to get out of it, Cleary says. “This is not a field of combat situation where the enemy wouldn’t have a cause of action against you for shooting him,” he adds.


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