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Indiana Reaffirms Immunity for Gun Dealers for Criminal or Unlawful Misuse of a Firearm

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By Codie Ross

November 6, 2019

Indiana store owners who sell guns are statutorily immunized from damages claims brought after a third party misuses a gun purchased from their store.  In denying transfer of a recent case with a new twist from the Indiana Court of Appeals, the Indiana Supreme Court strengthened and a reaffirmed its earlier position on the law.

Dunham’s Athleisure Corp. v. Keith Shepherd, 18A-PL-2892, involved a recent Indiana Court of Appeals decision pertaining to negligence claims brought against a Dunham’s Sporting Goods store by Keith Shepherd, whose girlfriend, Christina Bowman shot him with a firearm she purchased from the store in the fall of 2016.  The interesting factual pattern in this case, however, is the warning issued to a Dunham’s employee by Shephard.  While at the store, Shephard and Bowman argued after Shepherd refused to purchase the gun for her.  After the argument, Shephard told the clerk,  “whatever you do, don’t ever sell that little girl a gun. [S]he’s dangerous … she would shoot me.”

Later, that December, Bowman returned to the store herself, purchased the gun, and used it eight days later to shoot Shephard.  He survived the shooting, and sued Dunham’s for damages, alleging negligence, negligent entrustment and other causes. After the Wabash Superior Court denied Dunham’s motion for summary judgment, the retailer filed an interlocutory appeal, and the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed, ordering summary judgment to be entered for Dunham’s.  In doing so, the Court of Appeals found that the Indiana Supreme Court’s Ruling in KS&E Sports v. Runnells, 72 N.E.3d 892 (Ind. 2017) immunized gun dealers from lawsuits seeking damages, even when firearms are sold unlawfully.  In that case, the Supreme Court found that I.C. 34-12-3-3(2) “limits the seller’s exposure to liability by barring plaintiffs from holding him accountable for the portion of damages that results from the criminal or unlawful misuse of a firearm by a third party.”

In denying transfer of Shephard’s claim, the Indiana Supreme Court, in essence, reaffirmed its early stance and broadened it to cover the instance where even the store that sold the gun was warned of potential misuse by a third party.  Accordingly, entities that legally sell firearms in Indiana continue to enjoy statutory and judiciary protections and limitations on exposure when criminal acts are subsequently committed by a third party. 

The decision is favorable to sporting goods and firearms businesses within the state.  Considering the ever-evolving public debate regarding gun safety, the line of cases remain as good markers for understanding the status of the law for distributors of firearms in Indiana.  If you have any questions regarding this or other issues confronting business owners, please contact any member of our Retail, Hospitality, and Entertainment Facilities Practice Group.

This has been prepared for informational purposes only. It does not contain legal advice or legal opinion and should not be relied upon for individual situations. Nothing herein creates an attorney-client relationship between the Reader and Reminger. The information in this document is subject to change and the Reader should not rely on the statements in this document without first consulting legal counsel.

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