The Fourth is not with you

One of the more difficult parts of a personal injury lawyer’s job is explaining to the victim of tragedy that they don’t have a case.  The Fifth Circuit of the US Court of Appeals has to do the same thing.

On 21 January 2015 John Gorman was undertaking firearms training connected with his work for the Mississippi Gaming Commission.  Fellow instructor Robert Sharp forgot to replace his own real firearm with a dummy firearm.  In the course of training he shot Gorman in the chest causing fatal injuries.

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Gorman’s widow sought compensation from Sharp on the grounds that he had violated the American Constitution’s Fourth Amendment:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated….

Sharp’s application to dismiss the proceedings was denied by the US District Court: Gorman v State of Mississippi, 258 F.Supp.3d 761 (2017).  He appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The appeal was upheld.  Existing case law had consistently said that there is no liability under the Fourth Amendment absent deliberate and intentional conduct.  In this case it was undisputed that Sharp genuinely believed he was using a dummy firearm and had not shot Gorman wilfully.  The court observed sadly that –

The circumstances that led to this lawsuit are unquestionably tragic — an accidental fatal shooting during an officer training session. But the Constitution does not afford a cure for every tragedy.

The District Court’s decision was reversed.  It was noted that the plaintiff was also pursuing a claim in State law.

Gorman v Sharp (2018), US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, 6 June 2018.