Parents Not Liable For Mentally Ill Man's Deadly Rampage

, Daily Business Review

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4th DCA
4th DCA

The victims of Paul Merhige's 2009 Thanksgiving Day family massacre cannot sue his parents, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled Wednesday.

Writing for a unanimous panel, Judge Robert Gross upheld the decision of Palm Beach Circuit Judge Meenu Sasser to dismiss lawsuits brought by Patrick Knight, Muriel and Jimmy Sitton and Dr. Antoine Joseph.

Merhige shot Knight, who survived. He also shot and killed his twin sisters, Lisa Knight and Carla Merhige, his aunt Raymonde Joseph, and his 6-year-old niece, Makayla Sitton.

The shooter's parents, Michael and Carole Merhige, were sued on grounds they created a "foreseeable zone of risk" when theyinvited their son to the dinner without warning other relatives he was coming.

Merhige had a long history of violence and deep-seated anger toward his sisters and uncle. He had been involuntarily committed three times. He was financially dependent on his parents, who also knew he was not taking his prescribed psychotropic medications.

Despite these circumstances, Gross said the Merhiges had no legal duty to control the actions of their emancipated adult son. To overcome this, the plaintiffs would have to show the Merhiges had control of the deadly weapon, their Jupiter home and their son.

"Neither appellant contends that the Merhiges maintained control over the instrumentality (firearm) or the premises," Gross said.

Finally, Gross said the decision is in the interest of public policy.

"Families should be encouraged to include a troubled family member in the family circle," he said. "A holding that the Merhiges owed a legal duty to the members of their family ... would discourage families from providing a haven to troubled relatives for fear of civil liability. The result would be to foist those most in need of family interaction on the governmental and charitable social service networks, thereby thrusting a family problem into the hands of society at large."

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