Friday, June 22, 2018

Claims of Parental Liability for Acts of Adult Child Against Pennsylvania State Police Officers Allowed to Proceed

In the case of Dickson v. Frein, No. 16-CV-4887 (C.P. Lacka. Co. June 1, 2018 Nealon, J.), Judge Terrence R. Nealon of the Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas addressed issues of parental liability for their son’s act in gunning down members of the Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) during a tragic shooting that occurred in Pike County, Pennsylvania on September 12, 2014.  

In this matter, there are three (3) civil actions arising out of an incident which resulted in the death of a PSP Corporal and serious physical injuries and emotional harm to two other members of the PSP.   

The adult shooter’s parents, who are named Defendants in these cases, filed Preliminary Objections in the nature of demurrers seeking to dismiss the negligence claims against them on the grounds that they did not know any recognized duty to the shooting victims to the actions of their adult son.   The shooter’s father also filed a demurrer to one Plaintiff’s claim that the father was vicarious liable for the tortious conduct of his son.  

Applying the demurrer standard, the court denied the Defendants’ Preliminary Objections in this regard.  

Judge Nealon noted that, in cases involving firearms that are owned or controlled by parents and located on their property, Pennsylvania law recognizes a parental duty to exercise reasonable care in controlling or restricting access to those fire arms by a minor child, or even an adult child who suffers from mental illness or a cognitive disability, such that the child’s use of a firearm may create an unreasonable risk of harm to others.  

Judge Nealon also noted that, even in the absence of a special relationship between the parents and the shooter, the parents have a duty to refrain from committing an affirmative act that is likely to affect the conduct of the shooter in such a manner as to pose an unreasonable risk of harm to others.  

In this matter, the Complaints filed contained allegations that the parents knew that the shooter suffered from mental illness, cognitive disabilities, delusions, and an inability to distinguish fantasy from reality since the time that the shooter was a child.   

The Plaintiffs also alleged that, rather than seek warranty mental health treatment for their son, the parents fostered the child’s fantasies by allegedly financing their adult son’s military simulation hobby, providing him with fire arms training, and furnishing him with a text on sniper techniques.   

The Complaints also contained allegations that the parents otherwise psychologically manipulated their son’s vulnerable mental health state and compromised his cognitive condition in other ways, including positions on ending the misuse of power by police, which allegedly caused the adult son to allegedly develop a strong antipathy towards the police.   

The Plaintiffs’ Complaints also alleged that the parents knew that the adult son had been threatening to kill others who had wronged him or others. 

Overall, the Plaintiffs alleged in their Complaints that, despite their knowledge of their son’s wayward thoughts, the parents failed to contact police or any mental health professionals regarding their son’s intentions and actions and, to the contrary, granted him unfettered access to the firearms that the parents owned or controlled at their residence, including the weapons their son used during his attack on the Pennsylvania State Police.  

Given that the Defendant’s parents had not established that it was free and clear from doubt that they owed no duty of care under Pennsylvania law to the Plaintiffs, the court denied the Preliminary Objections filed by the parent Defendants.  

Judge Nealon did otherwise dismiss the separate vicarious liability claim against the father for the criminal conduct of his son as insufficient as a matter of law due to the absence of the requisite agency relationship between the father and the shooter.  

Anyone wishing to review a copy of this case may click this LINK.

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