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Supreme Court Opinion Questioned

Posted on Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Supreme Court (SCt.), after granting leave and taking full briefing and arguments in Black v Shafer, (149516), reversed the Michigan Court of Appeals (312379) and reinstated Wayne County Circuit Order granting Summary Disposition in favor of the defendant Anthony Shafer. The SCt decided the case on proximate cause, which was not an issue it asked the parties to address.



The Facts are of interest. Plaintiff, as Next Friend of 16-year-old Jessica Bitner, sued Bitner’s boyfriend, Ian Gearhart, after Bitner was accidentally shot in the leg by Gearhart while they were social guests at Anthony Shafer’s grandparents’ home. Shafer, 30 years old, invited Bitner, Gearhart and friend, Stephanie Sutton, to come to his grandparent’s home, situated near a lake for an evening of swimming. Alcohol was supplied by Gearhart and Shafer. The group was partying in the den, a converted garage. William kept a short barrel shotgun, loaded with two shells was leaning against the wall. Shafer knew of its existence and that it was loaded.


Gearhart, who was drinking, became curious about the gun. When he picked it up, Shafer took it from him, checking to be sure it was unloaded. With the safety off, he handed it to Gearhart who examined it and then put it back in the corner. At one point the women went home but, invited back by the two men, returned. The group drank alcohol and went swimming. Gearhart and Bitner returned to the den. Bitner saw Gearhart pick up the shotgun. The gun discharged and Bitner was shot in the leg.


Wayne County Circuit Court held for defendant, finding that there was no special relationship between plaintiff and defendant, that the shooting was unforeseeable and that the defendant didn’t breach the limited duties owed to licensees.


The COA disagreed. In the majority opinion, the court reversed the trial court stating that defendant owed plaintiff a duty of ordinary care as a general matter and because a “special relationship” existed between the parties. A special relationship was established because Shafer 1) invited and picked up Bitner, 2) provided her with alcohol he purchased and 3) allowed the intoxicated Bitner and intoxicated Gearhart into his garage with a loaded, displayed shotgun with its safety off.


COA Judge Kathleen Jansen wrote a dissent. Arguing that Bitner, a social guest of Shafer, was a licensee and, as such, was entitled to expect that she be informed of any dangerous condition such as the shotgun. Because, she opined, the gun was in plain sight, the danger was readily apparent. Judge Jansen went on to argue that since Bitner, a minor, was illegally consuming alcohol, no special relationship existed between the parties and thus there was no duty to protect by Shafer.



I disagree with the Supreme Court decision in this case.


The court said that reasonable minds could not differ that the shooter was an intervening cause that broke the chain of proximate cause from the guy who left the shotgun at the party.  I think most definitely it is a fact issue and that reasonable minds could differ. There was a time gap between the time Gearhart, the shooter, first handled the gun and when the shooting happened, but it was not days, but mere hours.  And, where there is a loaded gun at a party where drinking is occurring, it is, in my mind, reasonably foreseeable that someone will decide to shoot it.


The case, in my opinion, should, as ordered by the COA, be reversed and returned to the trial court for further proceedings.

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