Tag Archives: liability

A Way Around

Sane Americans need to vote as if our lives depend upon it, because in a very real sense, they do.

In the meantime…

When the religious warriors on the Supreme Court handed down their decision requiring states that funded private schools to fund religious ones as well– Carson v. Makin– our daughter (who spent 20 years on our local school board) asked whether there was now any way to fashion voucher programs that would prevent most religious schools from getting taxpayer money. Surely good lawyers could devise such a work-around.

Turns out there is. And it’s a tactic that can also be used to blunt some of the most dangerous consequences of the Court’s even-more-radical gun decision. (Unfortunately, I see no comparable “work arounds” for the Court’s horrifying abortion decision.)

Maine shows the way to keep public dollars out of church coffers. In Carson, the Court based its decision on the disparate treatment of religious and nonreligious private schools, so Maine eliminated that disparity–and did so in the best possible way.

What is surprising is how little the 6-to-3 decision in the Maine case, Carson v. Makin, will matter practically. And the reason offers a glimpse of hope for those who worry about a future dominated by the court’s conservative supermajority — including the many Americans troubled by the court’s decision in the gun case, New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen.

Let’s start with the Carson case. Anticipating this week’s decision, Maine lawmakers enacted a crucial amendment to the state’s anti-discrimination law last year in order to counteract the expected ruling. The revised law forbids discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation, and it applies to every private school that chooses to accept public funds, without regard to religious affiliation.

The impact was immediate: The two religious schools at issue in the Carson case, Bangor Christian Schools and Temple Academy, said that they would decline state funds if, as Maine’s new law requires, accepting such funds would require them to change how they operate or alter their “admissions standards” to admit L.G.B.T.Q. students.

The “fix” to Maine’s law allows religious schools to participate in the program on an equal basis with other private schools–and as an added bonus, ensures that secular private schools with discriminatory practices will also be denied the right to participate.

In an aside, the Court acknowledged that Maine also retains the right to eliminate its voucher program at any point. (Since most voucher programs–like Indiana’s– have failed to improve student outcomes while bleeding the public schools of needed resources, that’s a right I think they should exercise. But I digress.)

As the linked Times essay pointed out, a version of Maine’s tactic can also be adapted to use by the states (all blue) trying to combat gun violence.

Justice Clarence Thomas’s majority opinion made clear that the constitutionality of restrictions is historically “settled” in “sensitive places” such as legislatures, courtrooms and polling locations, and that “modern regulations” may “prohibit” the carry of firearms in “new” places. Given that, states should enact an expansive list of so-called sensitive places where guns may not be carried. Though Justice Thomas did not specify which those might be, during oral arguments in November, several justices pondered that they might include public transportation, crowded venues, university campuses and places where alcohol is served.

 Justice Brett Kavanaugh noted in a concurrence joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, moreover, that while states may not impose restrictions that prevent “ordinary, law abiding citizens” from carrying a gun to defend themselves, states can still enact rigorous requirements for a public carry permit, such as stringent background and mental health records checks and completion of regular training courses.

Another promising reform for states to consider would be to require gun owners to possess firearm liability insurance. Not only would such a requirement ensure that victims of gun violence can recover for their losses and “provide financial incentives for responsible arms carrying,” but it also draws strong historical support from a host of 19th century “surety laws” recognized in the court’s opinion.

That last “promising reform” echoes several comments made to this blog. 

This guest essay reminds us that–as critical as it is to repair a broken and increasingly illegitimate  Court–until that repair can be accomplished, we are not without resources to fight, or at least blunt, the consequences of the Court’s most dramatic departures from constitutional precedent and common sense. We just need lawmakers who understand the need to do so.

That means that the most important thing we can do is remember in November which party is responsible for replacing Justices committed to the Constitution with  a religious tribunal–and vote accordingly. 

 

 

 

What The NRA Hath Wrought…

When I saw this headline, “Owner of stolen handgun not liable for child’s death even when weapon is kept loaded and visible on car seat,” I couldn’t believe a court would rule this way on so obvious a case of negligence.

When I read the article, I understood.

Matthew Kendall, 16, of Huntingburg, died July 22, 2016, after he was shot in the head with a Glock 9 mm handgun that was taken earlier that day by a 15-year-old boy who was showing the weapon to Kendall when it discharged, according to court records.

Kendall’s mother, Shelley Nicholson, sued Christopher Lee, of Huntingburg, seeking damages for negligence in connection with Lee leaving his loaded handgun visible through the windows of Lee’s unlocked and unattended truck.

However, both the Dubois Circuit Court and a unanimous three-judge Court of Appeals panel said Nicholson’s case cannot proceed because Indiana law immunizes gun owners from civil liability for any subsequent use of their stolen firearms.

The court quoted the law as providing immunity from civil liability based on “an act or omission” of the owner, if the weapon was stolen and later used to commit a crime or harm someone.

Judge John Baker, writing for the Court of Appeals, said the plain language of House Enrolled Act 1349 required the court rule in favor of Lee, because regardless of how Lee stores his handgun, if the handgun is stolen, he is statutorily immune from liability for any resulting harm.

The Judge considered himself bound by what he called “the clear intent of the General Assembly,” which was to shield gun owners from liability even in situations like this, when an owner failed to take even the most minimal precautions to safely store his gun.

It’s hard to imagine anything more negligent than leaving a loaded gun on the passenger seat of an unlocked car. Absent the statute enacted by the Indiana legislature–undoubtedly under the influence of the NRA–the owner would be liable for his own careless behavior, as he should be.

Americans who own homes or other properties are routinely sued by folks who fall on steps or sidewalks that have been negligently maintained, or who are harmed by other obvious hazards that a normal person knows or should know are capable of  causing harm to a visitor. Laws that punish us for our own neglect or irresponsibility are there for a reason: to remind us that we have a duty of care, and should avoid negligent behaviors that can cause harm to innocent others.

It is absolutely scandalous that lawmakers (presumably in thrall to the clout of the NRA’s gun nut lobby) decided that a standard of behavior that has informed tort law pretty much forever just needn’t apply to people who might be careless with an inherently dangerous possession–a weapon that has one use and one use only–to injure or kill.

If you have a tree with a loose limb in your yard, you need to take care that it doesn’t fall and hurt someone who might sue you. But if you have a loaded gun available to whoever walks by, no worries.

The Indiana General Assembly has protected you. And gerrymandering protects them.