Gun Owner Owes $100K Over Toddler's Death
(CN) - A man who let toddlers play alone in an office where there was a loaded gun owes $100,000 to the father who found his son's "brain on the floor," a Texas appeals court ruled.
John Burton had brought his wife and two children, 2-year-old John Edward and 4-year-old Nicole, to Ft. Bend Collision Auto Repair on March 5, 2008. While Burton loaded scrap metal onto a trailer, his wife painted an office and the shop's owner, Daniel Plasencia, let the children into another office on the premises to play.
Later on, Burton heard a shot, ran to the room where his children were playing, and found his son John Edward dead, next to a shotgun.
Burton testified that, after hearing the gunshot, "I jumped off the trailer, went to the office, and I seen my son's brain on the floor. ... I seen the shotgun on the floor as I picked up my son and took him out."
The father sued Plascencia for wrongful death, claiming that the shop owner never told the parents that he kept a loaded shotgun in that office. He sought $1 million in damages.
After a bench trial, a Fort Bend County judge found Plascencia liable and awarded Burton $100,000.
The 14th Court of Appeals denied Plascencia's request for a new trial Thursday.
"Plasencia knew the Burtons' children were playing unsupervised in an office in which he had placed them, and he kept a loaded and unsecured shotgun in the office in which the children were playing," Justice William Boyce wrote for a three-judge panel. "Plasencia neither warned the Burtons about the shotgun nor removed the shotgun while the children were playing. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the factfinders determination, we conclude that reasonable and fair-minded people could reach the conclusion that the death of John Edward resulted from a breach of the duty of care owed by Plasencia, and we cannot conclude that the liability finding is so against the great weight and preponderance of the evidence so that it is manifestly unjust."
The court also affirmed the award, finding it would "fairly and reasonably compensate Burton" for his son's death. It noted that finders of fact are given discretion in awarding damages, and that Burton did not submit evidence about the relationship with his son that would support damages for loss of companionship or society.
However, "the trial court had the opportunity to observe Burton and assess his emotional demeanor during his testimony; this afforded some insight into the mental anguish Burton had suffered," Boyce said.