Wednesday, February 1, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Ninth Circuit Asked to Revive Suit Over Stolen Gun Used in San Francisco Pier Shooting

The U.S. government says it can't be held liable for negligence because the connection between the theft of a ranger's gun and a shooting that happened four days later are too far apart.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A lawyer for the family of a woman shot dead on a San Francisco pier by a federal ranger’s stolen gun asked a Ninth Circuit panel Wednesday to let a jury decide if the U.S. government should be held liable for her death.

“Under California law, there is a duty to safeguard firearms,” attorney Valerie McGinty said.

McGinty represents James Steinle and Elizabeth Sullivan, parents of a 32-year-old woman, Kate Steinle, who was fatally struck by a bullet that ricocheted off a concrete walkway on Pier 14 in San Francisco on July 1, 2015.

Jose Inez Garcia-Zarate, the undocumented immigrant who fired the gun, said the pistol accidentally went off after he found it wrapped in a rag beneath a bench. He was acquitted of murder in 2017.

Last year, a federal judge found the U.S. government could not be held legally responsible for Steinle’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.

On Wednesday, the Steinles’ attorney said the judge made a mistake by ruling in favor of the government. Only a jury can decide how directly the ranger’s conduct is tied to Steinle’s death, she said.

“A reasonable jury would have a basis to find that this negligence was at least a very minor force that did cause harm,” McGinty said.

The Steinle family argues the ranger who left his government-issued gun in a backpack in his private parked car should have foreseen that such a careless act would result in harm to others.

U.S. Bureau of Land Management ranger John 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. Woychowski parked his SUV in downtown San Francisco at 10 p.m. on June 27, 2015. He left the car packed with luggage in a city notorious for property crimes and car break-ins.

Woychowski left his .40-caliber pistol loaded and unsecured, 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.”

Despite those circumstances, U.S. Circuit Judge Susan Graber, a Bill Clinton appointee, seemed skeptical of arguments that the shooting was a foreseeable consequence of the ranger’s allegedly negligent conduct.

“It was ‘who knows’ who stole it and some period of days later, someone picked it up and it fired and it ricocheted,” Graber said. “It just seems like such a series of unrelated remote coincidences.”

McGinty, the Steinles’ lawyer, argued that California courts have held people liable for serving alcohol to intoxicated drivers that cause deadly accidents, but Graber found that situation very different from leaving a gun in a vehicle.

“That is not as direct as serving alcohol to someone who drives drunk,” Graber said.

Defending the lower court’s ruling, U.S. Justice Department lawyer Shiwon Choe said the stolen gun passed through at least two hands, possibly more, before the fatal shooting occurred.

“There are no courts that have held that such attenuated chain of circumstances give rise to proximate cause,” Choe said.

Citing prior California appellate decisions, Choe insisted that a special circumstance or special relationship — such as a business contract between two parties — is required to find a defendant has a duty to prevent harm.

McGinty cited the California Supreme Court’s April 1, 2020 decision in Brown v. USA Taekwondo, which upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit claiming an organization failed to protect minor athletes from sexual abuse by a coach. In that decision, the court found that in cases of “misfeasance,” or wrongful acts, as opposed to “nonfeasance,” or failure to act, the law imposes a general duty of care when the defendant creates a risk of harm.

“Here, Woychowski created a risk of harm for Kate,” McGinty said. “It’s his own negligence that’s at issue here. That’s why this is a case of misfeasance.”

Choe said that standard only applies when the defendant is the one who caused the injury. In this case, a third party is the one who shot the gun and caused harm to Steinle, he said.

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 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.

Steinle’s death became a rallying cry for supporters of tougher immigration enforcement, including then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, who cited the young woman’s death during his 2016 Republican National Convention speech.

Garcia-Zarate, the man acquitted of murder in Steinle’s shooting, is currently in custody while he faces federal gun possession charges. He was ordered to undergo mental health treatment last year after he was found not competent to stand trial. A status hearing in his case is scheduled for July 19.

Follow Nicholas Iovino on Twitter.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.