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Correia v. Bettencourt

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

June 19, 2017

Adam Correia
v.
John Bettencourt et al.
v.
James Martitz et al.

         Providence County Superior Court PC 12-6123 Richard A. Licht Associate Justice.

          For Plaintiff: Geoffrey M. Aptt, Esq. Michael Prew, Esq.

          For Defendants: Sean C. Joanis, Esq. Thomas A. Madden, Esq.

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.

          OPINION

          Suttell Chief Justice.

         The plaintiff, Adam Correia, was seriously injured when a friend's High Standard Model 1911 .45-caliber handgun accidentally discharged, causing a bullet to strike Correia in the abdomen. At the time of the accident, the friends were target shooting on property owned by the defendants, John Bettencourt and Theresa Bettencourt (the Bettencourts). The matter presently before us is Correia's appeal from a final judgment entered pursuant to Rule 54(b) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure in favor of the Bettencourts. This case came before the Supreme Court sitting at Woonsocket High School, pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. After considering the parties' written and oral submissions and reviewing the record, we conclude that cause has not been shown and that this case may be decided without further briefing or argument. For the reasons set forth herein, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.

         I

         Facts and Procedural History

         On November 28, 2012, Correia filed a complaint against the Bettencourts and Edward Alexander in the Superior Court. The complaint alleged that the Bettencourts "knowingly allowed * * * Alexander to shoot firearms" on their property, located in Warren, Rhode Island (the property); that on or about August 7, 2011, Correia was invited to the property by Alexander; and that he went to the property to shoot firearms there. The complaint further alleges that "Alexander negligently handled a firearm and shot * * * Correia in the abdomen" and that Correia suffered serious bodily injuries as a result.

         Count 1 of the complaint alleges negligence against Alexander.[2] Count 2 alleges that the Bettencourts breached their duty to control Alexander pursuant to Restatement (Second) Torts § 318 (1965). [3] Count 3 of the complaint claims that the Bettencourts were negligent by failing to protect Correia under § 314A of the Restatement (Second) Torts (1965).[4] Count 4 of the complaint alleges that, under the ad hoc duty analysis set forth in Banks v. Bowen's Landing Corp., 522 A.2d 1222 (R.I. 1987), the Bettencourts failed to exercise reasonable care. Count 5 is a claim of premises liability against the Bettencourts, and count 6 alleges that their failure to supervise Alexander resulted in Correia's injuries.

         On March 23, 2016, the Bettencourts filed a motion for summary judgment on all counts against them in Correia's complaint. In their motion, the Bettencourts argued that no duty of care existed which would entitle Correia to recovery because they were not present at, nor were they informed of, the dangerous activity and therefore they "had no opportunity to control the actions of Alexander"-an essential element under § 318 of the Restatement. They further argued that Correia's allegations under common law negligence and premises liability also must fail under the general rule expressed in Gushlaw v. Milner, 42 A.3d 1245, 1253 (R.I. 2012) that "[t]here is * * * no duty to control a third party's conduct to prevent harm to another individual[.]"

         Correia filed an objection to the Bettencourts' motion for summary judgment. In his objection, Correia alleged that the Bettencourts leased a portion of the property to Alexander, John Bettencourt's cousin, [5] "who kept cows, chickens, a trailer, and other items on the [p]roperty" and allowed Alexander's "friends to utilize [the] property as a shooting gallery, " an activity in which Alexander had engaged on the property in the past. Correia supported these allegations with his own deposition testimony, as well as that of Alexander and James Martitz, who was also present on the property the day of the accident.

         On June 7, 2016, a hearing on the Bettencourts' motion for summary judgment was held. The hearing justice summarized the facts of the case, stating: "Three guys decided to go do some shooting. They went out to the * * * Bettencourts' property and fired some shots and * * * the pistol or rifle jammed and a bullet was discharged accidentally and it went into * * * Correia's stomach and he sued * * * the landowners." The hearing justice cited to the general rule applicable to negligence actions as set forth in Willis v. Omar, 954 A.2d 126 (R.I. 2008) that "a plaintiff must establish a legally cognizable duty owed by a defendant to a plaintiff * * *." Id. at 129 (quoting Mills v. State Sales, Inc., 824 A.2d 461, 467 (R.I. 2003)). The hearing justice also considered § 318 of the Restatement (Second) Torts and Volpe v. Gallagher, 821 A.2d 699, 706-10 (R.I. 2003).[6] The hearing justice determined that "the presence of the landowner appears to be a key factor, perhaps the key factor, when deciding if the duty existed." He ruled that, because "[n]o competent evidence ha[d] been introduced to suggest that the Bettencourts were present on the property when Alexander accidentally discharged his weapon and shot Correia[, ]" no duty existed on the part of the Bettencourts to protect Correia from harm due to the actions of Alexander.

         On June 9, 2016, the Superior Court issued an order granting summary judgment to the Bettencourts. On June 23, 2016, Correia filed a premature notice of appeal.[7]

         II

         Standard ...


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