Law School Case Brief
Rains v. Bend of the River - 124 S.W.3d 580 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2003)
Courts consider a number of factors to determine whether the violation of a statute should trigger the negligence per se doctrine. The two threshold questions in every negligence per se case are whether the plaintiff belongs to the class of persons the statute was designed to protect and whether the plaintiff's injury is of the type that the statute was designed to prevent. Affirmative answers to these questions do not end the inquiry. Courts also consider: (1) whether the statute is the sole source of the defendant's duty to the plaintiff; (2) whether the statute clearly defines the prohibited or required conduct; (3) whether the statute would impose liability without fault; (4) whether invoking the negligence per se doctrine would result in damage awards disproportionate to the statutory violation; and (5) whether the plaintiff's injury is a direct or indirect result of the violation of the statute.
Aaron Rains was 18 years old when he purchased ammunition for his father's gun. Aaron was not asked to verify his age by defendant retailer, Bend of the River. There was no evidence that Aaron's conduct or demeanor while at the retailer's store were out of the ordinary. Aaron used the gun and the ammunition he purchased to commit suicide. Plaintiffs Bobby and Sandra Rains, Aaron's parents, asserted that the retailer was negligent per se, as it sold ammunition to a person under 21 years of age, in violation of 18 U.S.C.S. § 922(b)(1). They also asserted that the retailer should not have entrusted the ammunition to an 18-year-old child. The retailer sought for summary judgment, which the trial court denied.
Could the retailer be held liable for its negligence in selling the ammunition to the victim, who subsequently used it to commit suicide?
The Court held that the parents could not maintain a negligence per se action against the retailer. Nothing in Aaron's demeanor could have alerted the retailer to his potential for suicide, making suicide unforeseeable. The suicide became an intervening cause that cut off even negligence per se. That same intervening act also prohibited recovery under the negligent entrustment claim. And, as the wrongful death claims could not survive, there could be no claims for loss of consortium.
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