Spierer v. Rossman – No Duty of Care Owed by Missing Student’s Friends

In any civil tort lawsuit, plaintiffs are required to prove each element of basic negligence.

These elements are:

  • Defendant owed a duty of care;
  • That duty of care was breached;
  • Plaintiff suffered harm as a result of that breach;
  • Proof of monetary losses.

If any one of these points isn’t proven, plaintiffs cannot collect damages from defendant.

In the recent case of Spierer v. Rossman, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled friends of a missing college student owed no duty of care to her on the morning she disappeared. The court, while expressing deep sympathy for the parents, say there are no decisions under Indiana state law (where this incident occurred) that allows persons to be held liable for the actions of their social peers absent additional factors that aren’t present in this case.

The appeals court ruling was an affirmation of an earlier dismissal by the circuit court.

According to court records, a university student threw a large party at his apartment. Among those guests were plaintiffs’ 20-year-old daughter, who attended with two other male students. Alcoholic drinks were served to her, despite her age, and she reportedly drank heavily, as did her companions.

At one point, he and plaintiff’s daughter went to one of her male companion’s apartment, which was located in the same complex. His roommate, who had been at the same party, was also at that apartment and so them both there. He would later note both were visibly intoxicated. The young woman’s companion invited her to join him at a local bar. She went with him. She was noted to be stumbling and could barely walk on her own. Despite this, her friend bought her several more drinks. She lost her shoes. She lost her phone.

They stayed until about 2:30 a.m.

After leaving, the pair initially went back to her apartment building. Her male companion got into a physical altercation with another student, who took issue with him failing to help plaintiff’s daughter into her apartment, as she was extremely intoxicated. At that point, instead of taking her to her apartment – less than 100 yards away – he slung her over his back and carried her to his apartment. It was 3:30 a.m.

Her male companion fell asleep. His roommate tried to convince plaintiff’s daughter to sleep on the coach. She insisted on going home. For reasons not totally clear, the roommate took her back to the apartment where the house party had been earlier, instead of her own apartment. The host of that party, concerned for her, tried calling several friends to find her a ride home. None could be found.

Around 4:30 a.m., the host of the party allowed her to leave his residence on her own. He watched her walking in the direction of her apartment. He was the last person to see her alive.

In the four years since, her family has searched exhaustively for her, but she’s never been found.

Her parents then filed a personal injury lawsuit against her male companion, his roommate and the host of the party. Plaintiffs alleged they failed to fulfill their duty of care to their daughter as an incapacitated person, and they also asserted Dram Shop violations against two of the men for supplying her alcohol, even though she was underage and visibly intoxicated.

Defendants moved for dismissal on grounds that disappearance alone is not proof of injury. A series of back-and-forth filings then resulted in the magistrate judge limiting discovery to the issue of proximate causation of injury, which in turn resulted in summary judgment favoring defense. This is the order the appeals court upheld.

These claims essentially fail because parents could not prove their daughter was injured or deceased. Missing persons are presumed alive under state law for seven years after their disappearance, after which time they may be presumed dead. Parents would have the option to present circumstantial evidence their daughter was injured or deceased, but there was no evidence to present to a jury to determine what happened to her. Her parents had no evidence to offer a plausible account of what happened to her after she was last seen.

It was plaintiffs who had a burden of proof to show defendants – and not some other cause – were the proximate cause of any injury to her. Speculation alone is not enough.

Further, plaintiffs failed in showing defendants owed a duty of care to their peer. The one who may have owed her the most was purported to be so intoxicated himself by many accounts, he could barely care for himself, let alone someone else.

Contact our Carolina personal injury lawyers at Lee Law Offices today by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Spierer v. Rossman, Aug. 14, 2015, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

More Blog Entries:
South Carolina Group Homes Face Abuse Allegations, Aug. 24, 2015, Spartanburg Injury Attorney Blog

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