Is Walmart liable for an employee’s death?
That’s going to be for the court to decide.
In November 2019, Maryland Walmart employee Jacob Mace died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He left the store on a break one day and never returned. He was found deceased in his truck in a parking lot nearby.
It was later discovered that Mace had spoken about suicide and mental illness struggles at work, and that his manager and another employee had talked in the days before his death about blocking him from purchasing a firearm.
Sadly, they didn’t follow through.
Jacob Mace used the gun he purchased at Walmart for his death by suicide.
The Mace family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Walmart in state court.
The plaintiffs claim that Walmart was negligent because:
- Maryland state law prohibits an individual with a mental disorder or a history of violence toward self or others to possess a shotgun.
- Walmart had a duty of reasonable care to train and supervise employees to recognize signs of mental or emotional distress in order to prevent them from purchasing a firearm.
- If Walmart had not knowingly violated the Maryland law regarding the sale of a shotgun to a person under mental distress, Mace would not have had access to the gun and been able to take his own life.
|Basic elements of negligence||Mace wrongful death lawsuit|
|The defendant had a duty to act in a specific way.||Walmart has a duty to sell firearms safely, lawfully, and responsibly. It has a duty to run a background check and is prohibited from selling a firearm if the store has knowledge that the person is disqualified from owning a weapon.|
|The defendant breached its duty.||Walmart had actual knowledge that Mace would be disqualified from owning a shotgun. Mace was diagnosed with a major depressive disorder and borderline personality disorder while working at Walmart, and employees had observed him enough to recognize psychological and mental health issues. Specific Walmart employees were aware of Mace’s mental health issues, including depression and suicidal ideation.
Mace had also missed work at Walmart several times over the 2 weeks prior to his death because of hospitalizations related to mental health, and he had presented Walmart with letters from the hospital about his absences. Mace told a coworker at Walmart that he called a suicide hotline while at work during the month of September, just prior to his death.
A coworker told another Walmart employee that Mace should be prohibited from purchasing a gun, but the other employee did not follow through with adding him to the list of people who would be prohibited from purchasing weapons.
|The defendant’s breach caused the plaintiff’s injury.||Jacob Mace’s death was caused by his having shot himself with the gun he purchased at Walmart just a short time earlier.|
|The defendant should have foreseen that someone could be harmed by the action.||Employees at the Walmart where Mace worked were aware of his mental health issues and should have known that selling him a gun could result in his death.|
|The injury resulted in financial damages.||The plaintiffs’ action claimed compensation for Jacob Mace’s conscious pain and suffering, physical injuries, and other damages that resulted from his purchasing the gun and dying by suicide.|
Is Walmart liable?
The case has not yet concluded, so we don’t know how the court will decide.
One legal hurdle the plaintiffs must overcome is the “but-for” test.
It seems clear that Walmart was negligent when it sold the gun to Jacob Mace. But the Mace family will need to prove that this negligence caused Jacob’s death.
The but-for test says that an action is a cause of an injury if, but for the action, the injury wouldn't have occurred.
In other words:
Would the harm have occurred if the defendant hadn't acted in the way they did?
If the answer is NO, then the action caused the harm.
Or put differently:
If Walmart had not sold the gun to Mace, would Mace still have died by suicide? Would he have purchased a gun somewhere else, or would he have died by suicide another way?
It seems likely that Walmart’s lawyers will argue that if Walmart had not sold Mace the gun, he would have found another way to cause his own death — the cause of his death being the mental illness and not the gun, itself. If they can successfully make this argument, then the company won’t be legally responsible for causing Mace’s death, even if the store is liable for selling the gun illegally (i.e. without properly performing a background check).
However, there is legal precedent for holding a gun retailer responsible for negligent wrongful deaths if it should have known that the gun would be used for that purpose.
Wrongful death lawsuits involving gun dealers, distributors, or manufacturers
In 2019, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that a wrongful death lawsuit could move forward against Remington Arms, the manufacturer of the weapon used in the shootings of school children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
The case is based on the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), which protects a firearm manufacturer from being held liable for a crime involving its product. However, a manufacturer or dealer could be held responsible for damages that result from a product defect, breach of contract, criminal misconduct, or other actions — just like any other type of product liability claim. They can also be liable for negligent entrustment if they have reason to know a gun is intended for use in a crime.
The Sandy Hook decision (Soto v. Bushmaster Firearms International) said that the plaintiffs’ claims fell within one of the exceptions to the PLCAA. Specifically, “when a manufacturer or seller knowingly violates a state or federal law ‘applicable to’ the sale or marketing of firearms, and that violation ‘was a proximate cause’ of the harm the lawsuit seeks to vindicate (known as the ‘predicate exception’)”.
In other words, a gun shop or seller can be sued for negligence if it sells to a person it knows — or reasonably should know — is likely to use a firearm to commit a crime.
Using the gun on yourself is not the same as injuring others, but the legal precedent might still hold.
- Several families reached a multimillion-dollar settlement with a pawn shop in Kansas. The families of several people killed or injured in a shooting near Wichita in 2016 sued the shop for negligence related to the shootings. The shop sold the guns to a woman who was purchasing them on behalf of someone else, allowing that person to access guns without a proper background check. She purchased the guns using the shooter’s credit card, which the court said should have been a sign to the pawnshop that she was buying them for someone else.
- In another case, a Missouri woman with schizophrenia used a gun to kill her father. Her mother had previously called the gun shop to warn them not to sell her daughter a gun. That lawsuit settled for $2.2 million. (source)
- And then there was the lawsuit filed by 19-year-old Anthony King’s parents against Cabela’s sporting goods store. King’s friend Jake Klocek purchased ammunition from a Cabela’s in New York. A few days later, King was accidentally shot in the abdomen by Klocek and died. King’s parents sued the store for negligence because Klocek was under 21 when he bought the ammunition and New York state law requires a purchaser of handgun ammunition to be 21. Cabela’s tried to defend itself under the PLCAA as a shield from liability and moved to have the lawsuit dismissed. However, the court ruled that the case could move forward and Cabela’s could be held liable for King’s death. (source)
What happens next in the Walmart lawsuit?
We’ll find out eventually as it makes its way through the court system. Based on similar types of lawsuits, it’s possible Walmart will be held liable based on the exceptions to the PLCAA.
If you’re a family member of someone who you believe died as the result of negligence, you can contact a personal injury lawyer for guidance on how to file a wrongful death lawsuit.