SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The U.S. government can’t be held liable for the death of Kate Steinle on a San Francisco pier based on a federal ranger’s negligent storage of a gun that was stolen and used to shoot her, a Ninth Circuit panel ruled Tuesday.
Steinle was killed by a bullet that ricocheted off a concrete walkway and struck her in the back on Pier 14 in San Francisco on July 1, 2015.
In 2020, a federal judge found the U.S. government could not be held legally responsible for the 32-year-old woman's death. U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero cited the lack of a direct connection between the theft of a pistol from a federal ranger’s car and the shooting that occurred four days later and half a mile away.
In arguments before a three-judge Ninth Circuit panel last month, a lawyer for Steinle’s parents argued U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) ranger John Woychowski had a duty under California law to safeguard his firearm. His actions “created a risk of harm” for Steinle, attorney Valerie McGinty said.
In a 12-page opinion issued Tuesday, a three-judge Ninth Circuit panel refused to accept that argument. The panel affirmed Judge Spero’s January 2020 decision granting the U.S. government’s motion for summary judgment.
“We conclude that the connection between Woychowski’s storage of the pistol in his vehicle and Ms. Steinle’s death is so remote that, as a matter of law, Woychowski’s acts were not the proximate or legal cause of the fatal incident,” U.S. Ninth Circuit Judge Susan Graber, a Bill Clinton appointee, wrote for the three-judge panel.
Woychowski was traveling with his family from El Centro, California, to Helena, Montana, to work a temporary duty assignment when he stopped in San Francisco along the way. The BLM ranger parked his SUV in downtown San Francisco at 10 p.m. on June 27, 2015. He went to have dinner at a restaurant with his family and left the car "packed to the brim” with luggage and visible electronic equipment in a city notorious for property crimes and car break-ins, according to the Steinle family’s motion for summary judgment.
Woychowski left his .40-caliber pistol loaded and unsecured in a backpack in the cabin of the car, despite BLM policies requiring guns be stored in locked containers, kept unloaded and equipped with trigger locking devices. The agency also requires that firearms and ammunition “not be left unattended in motor vehicles or watercraft unless they are physically secured from theft and out of public view.”
The Ninth Circuit panel found a series of intermediary events and actions — some of which are not entirely known — broke the chain of causation between Wochowski leaving the pistol in his car and the fatal shooting that occurred four days later.
Someone had to break into the locked vehicle, steal a “seemingly innocuous” backpack, find the pistol, remove it from the backpack, wrap it in a cloth and place it under a bench where an undocumented immigrant found it four days later and picked it up, Graber wrote.
“We conclude that Woychowski’s storage of the pistol was too tenuously connected to Ms. Steinle’s death for the proximate cause element to be satisfied,” Graber wrote for the panel.
Senior U.S. Circuit Judge A. Wallace Tashima, a Bill Clinton appointee, and Senior U.S. District Judge Kathryn Vratil, a George H.W. Bush appointee sitting on the panel by designation from the District of Kansas, joined Graber on the panel.
Steinle’s parents — James Steinle and Elizabeth Sullivan — also sued the city of San Francisco over their daughter’s death. In 2019, a Ninth Circuit panel found the city could not be held liable for banning sheriff’s deputies from helping federal officers detain an undocumented immigrant who shot the fatal bullet.
The U.S. Justice Department, U.S. Bureau of Land Management and attorneys for Steinle’s parents did not immediately respond to emails requesting comment Tuesday.
Jose Inez Garcia-Zarate, formerly known as Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, is the undocumented immigrant who picked up and held the gun when the fatal bullet was fired. He said the pistol accidentally went off after he found it wrapped in a rag beneath a bench. He was acquitted of murder in 2017.
Garcia-Zarate is currently in custody to face two federal charges of illegal gun possession. At a recent court hearing, Garcia-Zarate’s lawyers said they were close to reaching a plea deal with federal prosecutors in which the undocumented immigrant would plead guilty to one count of illegal gun possession. But U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria ordered Garcia-Zarate to be reevaluated for mental competency following his bizarre behavior during that Aug. 9 virtual hearing. Garcia-Zarate had previously been treated for schizophrenia after he was found unfit to stand trial in October 2020.
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