Gun ownership is an issue about which many Tennesseans feel passionately. While individuals may disagree about when and where individuals should be allowed to have guns, all agree that gun owners have a responsibility to use their guns safely. Recently, a case in the Tennessee Court of Appeals raised a novel issue in gun ownership, asking whether a gun owner owes a duty to protect an individual whom he or she knows is mentally unstable or suicidal from using his or her gun. This question potentially broadens the responsibility that gun owners have not only to themselves but also to others.
In this Tennessee wrongful death case, the personal representative of C.C. brought claims against J.W. after C.C. committed suicide in 2014. C.C. was a nurse with a husband and young child when she began an affair with a doctor, J.W., at the hospital where she worked. When her husband became aware of the affair, they divorced, and the husband eventually sought full custody of their child. While going through these proceedings, C.C. became increasingly depressed and upset and eventually sought the help of a psychiatrist. She was prescribed medication but continued to struggle with depression. In January 2014, C.C. attempted suicide for the first time by overdosing on her medications and mixing them with alcohol. She was transported to a local hospital, and J.W. was alerted. Eventually she was released into J.W.’s custody with instructions to receive further mental health care. Over the following weeks, C.C. learned that her ex-husband had been granted full custody of their child. She and J.W. began to disagree and temporarily separated. Several weeks later, they reconciled.
At around that time, J.W. inherited a gun and ammunition from a family member. While C.C. was visiting J.W.’s home one night, J.W. showed her the pistol and where it was located. J.W. and C.C. continued to have an on and off relationship. While C.C. also continued to see her therapist, she never told him about the attempted suicide, and J.W. did not share this information either. As a result, C.C. was not prescribed any further medication or treatment. Shortly before her suicide, C.C. and J.W. had another fight when J.W. attempted to break off the relationship. While J.W. was away on business, C.C. asked if she could stay at his home while she looked for new housing. J.W. agreed. While in his home, C.C. shot herself with the pistol that J.W. had shown her. By the time he returned home, C.C. was dead. The personal representative of C.C.’s estate sued J.W. for negligence, arguing that J.W. should have kept and stored his gun in a safe manner where it was not accessible to C.C. The representative further argued that J.W. knew of C.C.’s precarious mental state and owed a duty to protect her from the possibility that she might harm herself.