Estate of Strever v. Cline, 95-053

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Montana
Citation924 P.2d 666,53 St.Rep. 576,278 Mont. 165
Docket NumberNo. 95-053,95-053
PartiesThe ESTATE OF Robert J. STREVER, and Jolleen Strever, Individually, and as Personal Representative of said Estate, Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. Steven CLINE, a minor; Thomas Morris, a minor; Bowen Racine, a minor; and Tom E. Susanj, Defendants and Respondents. . Heard
Decision Date12 December 1995

Craig W. Holt, Billings, for Appellants.

Michael B. Anderson (argued) and V. Ann Liechty, Gannett, Anderson & Liechty, Billings, for Respondents.

NELSON, Justice.

Eleven-year-old Robert Strever died May 3, 1992, as a result of a single gunshot wound to the head. Robert was shot with a handgun that he and several companions had stolen from a vehicle. Robert's mother brought an action against the owner of the vehicle and the three boys present at the time of the shooting. The District Court for the Thirteenth Judicial District, Yellowstone County, granted summary judgment in favor of the vehicle owner and one of the boys and entered default against the remaining two boys. The District Court subsequently granted Plaintiffs' Motion for Rule 54(b) Certification to this Court. We affirm.

The issues presented for review are:

1. Whether the District Court erred in determining that Thomas Susanj did not owe a legal duty to Robert Strever.

2. Whether the District Court erred in determining that, even if Thomas Susanj owed a legal duty to Robert Strever, the breach of that duty was not a proximate cause of Robert's death.

Background Facts

On Friday, May 1, 1992, Robert contacted his mother at work and requested permission to go on a weekend fishing trip with his friend, Brent McKellip. Robert's mother instructed him to contact his grandmother, Josephine Strever, and have her speak with Brent's father to get the details of the trip. Josephine called the McKellip home and spoke with an individual who represented himself as Mr. McKellip. He stated that the boys would be leaving for the fishing trip on Friday evening and that they would return to Billings on either Saturday or Sunday.

When the boys came to collect Robert's clothing for the weekend trip, Josephine expressed her suspicions of Mr. McKellip's youthful sounding voice. Robert and Brent told her that it was due to Mr. McKellip having a sore throat. After Robert's death, it came to light that the fishing trip was a ruse and that fourteen-year-old Steven Cline pretended to be Mr. McKellip to obtain permission for Robert to spend the weekend with Brent.

On Saturday evening, May 2nd, Robert, Cline and another boy, Bowen Racine, attended a movie. After leaving the movie theater, the boys decided to enter several parked vehicles in the neighborhood and steal their contents.

Tom Susanj was in Billings that weekend to visit his father who had been transferred to St. Vincent's Hospital for medical care. Susanj had parked his pickup on the street in front of a relative's home and had left it for the night. Located in the cab of his pickup were a Spectrum radar detector, keys, a micro cassette recorder, jumper cables, a Black & Decker car light, Bushnell binoculars, a Shakespeare fishing rod and case, a tape case with 30 cassette tapes, a small tool box, and a Fujica camera. Underneath the seat of the pickup, in a white bag, was a Ruger 22-caliber semiautomatic pistol and ammunition.

In the early morning hours of May 3rd, the three boys entered Susanj's pickup and removed several items. Although Susanj testified that it was his normal practice to lock his pickup, there was no evidence of forced entry. Susanj was not aware, nor had he reason to be aware, of a crime problem, if any, in that neighborhood.

Sixteen-year-old Thomas Morris joined Robert, Cline and Racine after noticing them near Susanj's pickup. All four boys then returned to the pickup to search for more items to steal. Morris took the white bag from under the driver's seat and discovered that it contained the handgun and ammunition. An animated discussion ensued over who should have the gun. After removing the gun from the bag, Morris either handed the gun to Cline at Cline's request or Cline took the gun from Morris. Either way, Cline gained control of the gun. Prior to the incident Cline had been smoking marijuana and had informed Morris he was "high".

Morris testified that Cline waved the gun around while his finger continually rested on the trigger. In the process of examining the gun, Cline ejected a live shell from the chamber. Cline was attempting to remove the ammunition clip from the gun when the gun discharged, the bullet striking Robert in the head. Susanj later testified that he did not keep the clip in the gun. However, Morris and Cline testified that the clip was in the gun when they took it from the bag.

After Robert fell to the ground, the other boys panicked. Morris and Racine ran down an alley and Cline followed, still carrying the gun. Morris and Racine urged Cline to put the gun down and he complied. Cline went to a nearby convenience store and called the police. The police later retrieved the gun from the spot where Cline placed it. Cline was convicted of negligent homicide for the death of Robert Strever.

Plaintiffs brought a civil action against the vehicle owner, Susanj, claiming that his negligent act of leaving his vehicle unattended and unlocked in a public thoroughfare contributed to the wrongful death of Robert Strever. Plaintiffs claimed that Robert's three companions, Morris, Cline and Racine, should also be held liable for Robert's death because they were involved in stealing the handgun from Susanj's pickup. Plaintiffs claimed that Morris, as the oldest of the boys and the one with some familiarity of handguns, was negligent in failing to prevent harm to Robert and in failing to warn Robert of the danger involved with a loaded gun.

The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of Susanj and Morris on the grounds that neither of them owed a duty to Robert. The District Court further held that even if Susanj and Morris owed a duty to Robert, their actions or inactions were not the proximate cause of Robert's death. The District Court entered default against the remaining two defendants, Cline and Racine, for failure to appear.

Upon motion by Plaintiffs and without objection by Morris and Susanj, the District Court granted Plaintiff's Motion for Rule 54(b), M.R.Civ.P., Certification to this Court. Morris was subsequently dismissed from the appeal.

Standard of Review

Our standard of review in appeals from summary judgment rulings is de novo. Mead v. M.S.B., Inc. (1994), 264 Mont. 465, 470, 872 P.2d 782, 785. When we review a district court's grant of summary judgment, we apply the same evaluation as the district court based on Rule 56, M.R.Civ.P. Bruner v. Yellowstone County (1995), 272 Mont. 261, 264, 900 P.2d 901, 903. In Bruner, we said:

The movant must demonstrate that no genuine issues of material fact exist. [Citation omitted.] Once this has been accomplished, the burden then shifts to the non-moving party to prove, by more than mere denial and speculation, that a genuine issue does exist. [Citation omitted.] Having determined that genuine issues of fact do not exist, the court must then determine whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. [Citation omitted.] We review the legal determinations made by a district court as to whether the court erred. [Citation omitted.]

Bruner, 900 P.2d at 903.

Discussion

In order to sustain a negligence action, the plaintiff must establish a legal duty, breach of that duty, and damages proximately caused by that breach. Whitfield v. Therriault Corp. (1987), 229 Mont. 195, 197, 745 P.2d 1126, 1127.

Ordinarily, issues of negligence are issues of fact not susceptible to summary adjudication. Brohman v. State (1988), 230 Mont. 198, 201, 749 P.2d 67, 69. However, actionable negligence arises only from the breach of a legal duty; the existence of a legal duty is a question of law to be determined by the district court. Nautilus Insurance Co. v. First National Insurance (1992), 254 Mont. 296, 837 P.2d 409, 411, 49 St.Rep. 802, 803.

Yager v. Deane (1993), 258 Mont. 453, 456, 853 P.2d 1214, 1216.

Issue 1

Whether the District Court erred in determining that Thomas Susanj did not owe a legal duty to Robert Strever.

The District Court determined that Susanj did not owe a legal duty to Robert because Susanj was unaware of previous thefts in that area of Billings that would compel him to lock his vehicle, because Susanj did not permit the boys to enter his vehicle, because Susanj did not have an open display of his firearm to lure the boys into entering his vehicle and stealing the firearm, and because Robert was not an innocent party but, rather, was a participant in the burglary.

Plaintiffs contend that Susanj had a legal duty to the general public to lock his vehicle to prevent the gun from falling into "improper hands." Susanj argues that vehicle owners have no duty to protect burglars from injuries they inflict upon themselves in the course of their criminal acts. We conclude that Susanj did owe a duty to not only Robert but also to the public in general to store his firearm and ammunition in a safe and prudent manner.

Negligence denotes "a want of the attention to the nature or probable consequences of the act or omission that a prudent man would ordinarily give in acting in his own concerns." Section 1-1-204(4), MCA. Moreover, every person is bound, without contract, to abstain from injuring the person or property of another or infringing upon any of his rights. Section 28-1-201, MCA.

At common law, a property owner's potential liability for injuries suffered by one who entered onto his land was determined by the injured party's status as an invitee, licensee or trespasser. A trespasser is one who enters the property of another without any right, lawful authority, or express or...

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