Don’t Try This at Home

Here’s an interesting tort case I ran across recently, Mangold v. Ind. Dept. of Natural Resources (Ind. 2001):

On March 12, 1997, a Department of Natural Resources (“DNR”) conservation officer conducted a hunter education class for students at Switzerland County Junior High School. The program was part of the school’s science curriculum and addressed firearm safety. While instructing the class, the officer dismantled a shotgun shell, showed the students the component parts, and explained what the parts do when the gun is fired. Among other things, the officer told the students that when the firing pin strikes the primer, the primer “sparks” setting fire to the powder. The officer also warned the students that they should never handle ammunition unless accompanied by an adult.

Twelve-year-old Matthew Mangold attended the class. After school, Matthew and his brother partially disassembled one of their father’s shotgun shells. With his brother holding the shell with pliers, Matthew struck the firing pin with a hammer and chisel. Rather than causing a “spark” as Matthew expected, the shell exploded with a fragment striking Matthew in the face and leaving him blind in the left eye.

Acting as next friend, Matthew’s father filed a complaint for negligence against DNR as well as Switzerland County School Corporation …. The complaint alleged that DNR was negligent in its instruction on firearm safety and School was negligent in its supervision of the officer.

I read plaintiff’s brief for rehearing, and the essence of Mangold’s complaint was that “Officer Groover explained how ammunition works. He explained that a primer struck by a blunt firing pin ‘ignites.’ Groover testified in his deposition that he never used the word ‘explodes.'” The court unanimously held that a jury could find Groover’s conduct negligent.

Three of the five Justices said that these particular defendants — because they were government entities — couldn’t be liable: Under Indiana law, the old “contributory negligence” rule, under which a plaintiff is barred from recovery even if he were only slightly negligent himself, still applies to actions against the government, and here Matthew Mangold was indeed negligent. But it follows that a similar scenario in which a nongovernmental employee were giving the firearms safety talk, or in which it was given at a private school, could lead to liability for the speaker or the school.

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