Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Steinle v. United States (9th Cir. - Aug. 24, 2021)

Federal BLM ranger John Woychowski works in El Centro and is on vacation with his family in San Francisco, and (stupidly) parks his car on the Embarcadero at night with his luggage in full view.  To the surprise of no one, someone breaks into his car and steals his stuff.  Including but not limited to his BLM-issued Sig Sauer P239, which was in a backpack in the vehicle.

Four days later, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez was sitting on a bench nearby and found Woychowski’s pistol, wrapped in a shirt or rag, near where he was sitting. He bent over and picked up the wrapped pistol; he fired it; and a bullet ricocheted off the ground, striking and killing Kathryn Steinle.  (You may perhaps recall these events; it was a big deal at the time.)

Ms. Steinle's parents sue, but the Ninth Circuit concludes -- correctly -- that whatever mistakes Mr. Woychowski made (and there were many) weren't the proximate cause of Ms. Steinle's death.  As Judge Graber notes, "[i]t is not known who stole the pistol, how many people possessed it in the four days between June 27 and July 1, who took the pistol out of the holster and wrapped it in a shirt or rag (or why they did so), or how the pistol came to be left near the bench where Lopez-Sanchez found it."  There are simply too many intervening (and potentially unkowable) events between the theft of the gun and Ms. Steinle's death to establish Mr. Woychowski's alleged negligence as its proximate cause.  On the merits, I can find no fault with Judge Graber's opinion.

But I'll add one thing.  It's common to describe events like these as "tragic."  Because they totally are.  But those words are nowhere in the opinion, nor is there any demonstrable sympathy for Ms. Steinle's family in the opinion rejecting their claims.

Maybe it's trite to do so.  Maybe it's totally unnecessary.  But these events were truly tragic.  So I'd have used the word and expressed the sentiment.  Because, yeah, I agree their lawsuit should be dismissed, but I'm nonetheless radically sympathetic to their plight.  So I'd say so.

Trite or not.