The New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division has held that a fraternity is not liable for a shooting occurring during a party at a fraternity house, on the grounds that the shooting was not reasonably foreseeable. Peguero v. Tau Kappa Epsilon concerned a party at a private residence rented by several fraternity members. While the house was not recognized as an official chapter house of the fraternity, it was widely regarded by students as affiliated with the fraternity. While trying to assist a friend involved in an argument, a party attendee was shot and wounded by an unknown individual. There was no prior history of incidents involving guns on the premises or violent criminal behavior. The injured party brought a negligence action against the local fraternity chapter, the national fraternity, and several officers and members of the fraternity. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants.
The Appellate Division focused its analysis upon whether the fraternity and co-defendants owed a duty of care to the plaintiff to protect him from the shooting. Initially, the Court rejected the defendants’ argument that they had no duty of care because they did not own the building, noting that renters have at times been held to have a duty to avoid or remove a known hazard. However, the Court ultimately concluded that the defendants had no duty to protect the plaintiff from the shooting, as the shooting was not reasonably foreseeable. The Court emphasized that there was no previous pattern of criminal conduct that should have alerted the plaintiffs that gunfire was likely to erupt at the party. The Court also noted that no witness saw the shooter holding a gun or “otherwise displaying a volatile or dangerous propensity” until the argument commenced. In addition, the Court observed that it was not foreseeable that the plaintiff would intercede in the argument. Furthermore, the mere fact that the party was crowded and many guests were drinking beer did not make it reasonably foreseeable that a shooting would occur.
The Court also observed that the ability of the fraternity to prevent the shooting was “theoretical at best.” The plaintiff offered no expert witness or other testimony to suggest that the fraternity should have frisked every guest or utilized a metal detector. The Court also noted that even if the fraternity had checked each guest’s identification, there is no reason to believe that this would have revealed that a guest had or was likely to have a loaded weapon.
Finally, the Court noted that even if the shooting could have deemed reasonably foreseeable, the New Jersey Supreme Court has cautioned that imposing a duty of care upon foreseeability alone could result in “virtually unbounded liability” and could result in “confusion and uncertainty.” The Court therefore affirmed the trial court’s order of summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs.
The Court’s decision reflects reasonable limits upon the scope of conduct for which a party can be held liable. By focusing upon whether the conduct at issue was reasonably foreseeable, the decision helps ensure that parties are not required to take extraordinary steps to guard against unlikely events.