I just ran across an interesting 2009 case that I thought I’d note for our readers. Here’s a brief and oversimplified summary of the facts: Danna Back dated Nicholas Super, but then decided to get back together with an earlier boyfriend, Daniel Holliday. Back knew that “Super threatened Holliday with a gun several times,” and that Super was a dangerous guy who was “known to pull his gun out on anybody.” Nonetheless, Back asked Super to drive her to Holliday’s house (hoping to get back together with Holliday). Super stayed around, and when Back and Holliday started arguing, and Holliday kicked Back out, Super and Holliday started arguing. Super then shot and killed Holliday.
Back was then prosecuted for, and convicted of, involuntary manslaughter, and the Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed, on the grounds that the jury had enough “evidence of: (1) the prior intimate relationship between appellant and Super; (2) appellant’s knowledge that Super previously fired a gun into the victim’s garage; (3) appellant’s knowledge of the past conflicts between Super and the victim; and (4) appellant’s knowledge that Super carried a gun. On this record, although appellant did not shoot [Holliday], we cannot say that in light of the evidence presented, a reasonable jury could not infer that appellant was grossly negligent [and even criminally reckless] in getting Super to drive her to the victim’s house.” Moreover, the proximate cause requirement was satisfied, chiefly because Super’s attack on Holliday was reasonably foreseeable. “Here, appellant may not have foreseen that the victim would be killed in the manner that he was, but appellant had knowledge about the conflicts between Super and D.H., and knew of Super’s reputation for carrying and using his gun. And although appellant may not have intended for D.H. to be harmed or killed, the jury could have properly determined that she could have anticipated that harm may occur.”
The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed, because “[a] defendant cannot be negligent, culpably or otherwise, unless the defendant has a duty that he or she breached,” and “there is generally no duty to protect strangers from the criminal actions of a third party” absent a “special relationship” that didn’t exist here.
Now I think the state supreme court got it right as to the bottom line; people shouldn’t be held liable for simply bringing violent people to a situation that would foreseeable cause more violence. Part of my concern here is that any such liability would be so hard to cabin that those who have the misfortune of living around violent people could have their liberty drastically constrained — not just by regrettable practical reality, but by the law — as they have to organize their lives around not inadvertently enabling or provoking others’ violence. Thus, for instance, allowing liability on the prosecution’s theory would have potentially led Back to be liable for merely informing her current boyfriend that she was leaving him for someone else (since that could foreseeably lead to the boyfriend killing or injuring her new lover), or for cheating on her boyfriend in such a situation, or for openly having dinner with her new lover in a place where her boyfriend might see, and so on.
Holding Back liable for negligently bringing on a deadly confrontation between Super and Holliday would leave Back a continuing victim to Super’s oppression, and would indeed bring in government power in support of Super’s oppression, because Back would now have a legal duty not to do those things that might provoke Super. That strikes me as quite troublesome, and more troublesome than leaving Back free to do such things even if that increases the risk of death for Holliday or other third parties.
But I’m not persuaded by the supreme court’s reasons for reaching the right result. The prosecution’s theory wasn’t that Back negligently failed to protect Holliday. Rather, its claim was that Back negligently engaged in the affirmative act of bringing Super to Holliday’s house, in the context where she should have known that violence might happen. In such an affirmative liability theory, the presence or absence of a special relationship, it seems to me, would be irrelevant.
Thus, for instance, consider this hypothetical: Say Back affirmatively brought a dangerous animal — say, a poisonous snake — to a place where she knew the animal might well attack Holliday, and the animal indeed killed Holliday. I take it that then she Would be guilty of involuntary manslaughter (assuming she was sufficiently grossly negligent in creating such a risk) even though she had no special relationship with Holliday, since she’s being faulted for a sin of commission (affirmatively endangering), not of omission (failing to protect). That Super was a dangerous person and not a dangerous animal should, I think, make a legal difference. But that difference isn’t explained, I think, by the conclusion that Back had no duty to protect Holliday, and no “special relationship” with Holliday. Or am I missing something? I’d love to hear what others think.