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First Circuit Goes Back to Erie Doctrine in NH Shooting Case

By Tanya Roth, Esq. on July 10, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Here's a hornbook-style negligence case out of the First Circuit to kick off the week. But the interesting dicta in this case doesn't come from the negligence analysis. Rather, it takes us back to good old-fashioned jurisdictional issues, Erie style.

In a decision posted on Friday, the First Circuit Court of Appeals talked about the liability of a gun owner, specifically when his gun is stolen to commit a crime.

The case is an unfortunate one, involving a gun-related fatality. A man was shot during a botched robbery at a New Hampshire Army surplus store, as reported by The Associated Press.

The victim's mother, in her capacity as executrix of her son's estate, sued the owner of the gun. Her complaint alleged that the negligent storage of the gun, and the failure to timely report the theft of the gun, proximately caused the victim's death.

The federal court had jurisdiction over the case as the plaintiff raised diversity of citizenship in her complaint. The court applied New Hampshire tort law to resolve the issue. The district court ruled for summary judgment in favor of the defendant.

Under New Hampshire law, no liability existed for the criminal acts of third parties, so the district court rejected both arguments -- the failure to report argument and the negligent storage argument.

The plaintiff appealed to the First Circuit Court of Appeals. There were several grounds for appeal, but the interesting argument focuses on traditional Erie principles and the choice of law.

As mentioned earlier, the plaintiff sued in federal court, even though this was a garden-variety tort claim. The Erie doctrine reminds us that where diversity applies, the choice of law goes back to state law.

"A federal court sitting in diversity does not have a roving writ to sift through the decisions of all fifty states and choose doctrines that it finds most attractive," said the First Circuit, in its ruling.

While the First Circuit recognized that the case was a tragic one, the court cited the age old United States v. Clark, stating that the court's job was to ensure "that hard cases do not make bad law."

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