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The Utah Supreme Court on Friday found that gun owners have a duty to "exercise reasonable care" in supplying guns to others, such as children and incompetent or impaired individuals.
The high court said the wrongful death case at issue involves "important questions of first impression ... regarding the duties owed by gun owners."
The case centers around a 2006 episode where an intoxicated woman shot and killed herself at a party with a handgun she obtained from the party's host.
No criminal charges were brought against the host, Travis Izatt. But the woman's estate sued him for wrongful death, alleging that he was negligent in allowing the "severely intoxicated" woman to have access to his loaded handgun.
A district court judge in 2011 dismissed the suit brought on behalf of Neely Creager, agreeing with Izatt that he owed her no legal duty to exercise reasonable care.
The Utah Supreme Court found that such a duty of care does exist and sent the case back to the lower court.
But the justices, in their unanimous opinion, stressed that they had made no ruling concerning any breach of duty or causation on Izatt's part. Those are questions for the trial court.
"Supplying an intoxicated individual with a gun, just as supplying a car to such a person, creates a foreseeable risk of harm. But the fact that gun owners have such a duty does not mean that they will necessarily be liable for damages when those individuals injure themselves, because in most cases the intoxicated individual's negligence will likely exceed that of the gun owner as a matter of comparative negligence," the court said.
The high court also noted, "Although the United States Constitution, as well as Utah's Constitution and statute, clearly protect the right to own firearms, this right is not unrestricted."
Creager, 30, died on May, 5, 2006.
Excactly how Creager came to possess the gun is unclear, Friday's ruling said, as Izatt gave different accounts to a 911 dispatcher, a police officer and in a deposition taken as part of the lawsuit.
In any case, Creager who was suffering from severe depression and was on a variety of medications, and became intoxicated shot herself in the head, according to the ruling.
Creager's estate has argued she shot herself accidentally, a point that Izatt did not dispute for purposes of the appeal.