SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge signaled Friday he will likely strike down a lawsuit seeking to hold the U.S. government liable for a ranger whose gun was stolen and used to fatally shoot a young woman on a San Francisco pier in 2015.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero heard arguments Friday on the U.S. government’s motion for summary judgment in a lawsuit filed by the parents of Kate Steinle, a 32-year-old woman shot dead on a San Francisco pier on July 1, 2015, by an undocumented immigrant.
Her killer, Jose Inez Garcia-Zarate, said the shooting was accidental. He was acquitted of murder in 2017. Garcia-Zarate said he found the gun wrapped in a rag under a bench on the Embarcadero.
“We know that the weapon was stolen,” Spero said. “We don’t know by whom. We don’t know how many hands it went through. We don’t know where it went, other than we know where it ended up.”
The Steinle family’s lawyer, Alison Cordova of the Burlingame-based firm Cotchett Pitre McCarthy, argued the ranger who left a government-issued firearm in a backpack in his parked private vehicle on the Embarcadero should have foreseen such a careless act “could likely cause harm.”
U.S. Bureau of Land Management ranger John Woychowski was traveling with his family from his home field office in El Centro, California, to Helena, Montana, where he was scheduled to work a two-week detail around July 4, 2015. He parked his 2015 Buick Enclave SUV in downtown San Francisco at 10 p.m. on June 27, before going to have dinner with his family at a restaurant. He left the car “packed to the brim with five luggage bags, five backpacks” and electronic equipment, according to the Steinle family’s opposition to summary judgment.
The Steinle family argues Woychowski left a .40-caliber pistol loaded and unsecured, despite BLM policies requiring guns and bullets be stored in locked containers, that guns be unloaded and equipped with trigger locking devices, and that firearms and ammunition “must not be left unattended in motor vehicles or watercraft unless they are physically secured from theft and out of public view.”
Woychowski had placed one of two loaded guns he was carrying in the vehicle’s locked glove compartment, but he did not place the gun later used to shoot Steinle in that same locked glove compartment.
“The policy from his employer was to always keep a lock on the gun,” Cordova said. “No other user could have used that gun unless they somehow miraculously knew the code to unlock that gun.”
Spero acknowledged enough evidence exists to advance a negligence claim against the government, but not knowing what happened after the gun was stolen and before it wound up in Garcia-Zarate’s hands breaks “the chain of causation,” he said.
“You have no idea what happened between the time the gun was stolen and it ended up at Mr. Zarate’s feet,” Spero said.
The U.S. government argued in its brief that the Steinle family lacks a “sufficient connection between the BLM ranger’s conduct and the injury to plaintiffs” as required under California law.
A defendant “has no duty to control the conduct of another” and only owes a legal duty of care to people “foreseeably endangered” by their conduct, the state’s Fourth District Appellate Court held in the 1992 ruling Jacoves v. United Merchandising Corp.
The Steinle family contends that a “special circumstances” exception applies in this case because Woychowski created a “heightened degree of foreseeable risk” by parking his car in an unsafe location late at night with “numerous valuables in open sight in the vehicle.”
“It’s almost as bad as leaving it under a public bench wrapped in a rag,” Cordova argued in court.
Despite those arguments, Spero voiced concern that advancing this case could expose people who have guns stolen to “open-ended liability.” Without evidence of how the gun got from Woychowski’s vehicle to underneath a bench half a mile away and three days later, no one can say if the defendant could have foreseen the unknown events that led to the shooting, Spero said.
“I think the fatal flaw in your argument is you can’t prove the chain of causation,” Spero said. “You can’t show me the facts that would justify allowing proximate cause to go that far.”
Cordova argued that three days and a short geographic distance is enough evidence to allow the court to infer that the gun could not have changed hands too many times or traveled that far.
Spero disagreed, noting the gun could have traveled to Oakland or Chicago and back.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s three days or three months,” Spero said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s one block or two miles because we don’t know where it went and we don’t know how it happened.”
After about 40 minutes of debate, Spero took the arguments under submission.
Earlier this year, the Ninth Circuit upheld Spero’s January 2015 decision to dismiss the Steinle family’s negligence claims against the city of San Francisco. Steinle’s parents claimed the city should be held liable for releasing Garcia-Zarate from jail and refusing to help ICE deport him before he fired the fatal bullet.
In 2017, a San Francisco Bay Area news station reported the BLM promoted Woychowski to a supervisory position five months after Steinle’s death, despite accusations that he violated department policies by failing to secure a government-issued gun in his private vehicle.
Acquitted of murder by a state court jury in 2017, Steinle’s shooter, Garcia-Zarate, faces 20 years in prison for two counts of illegal gun possession charges based on his status as a convicted felon and undocumented immigrant. Earlier this week, a federal judge said he would not let potential jurors in that case be questioned about their positions on the Trump administration’s immigration policies. The trial is scheduled to start Jan. 15.