Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Appeals court rules parents not liable for autistic son who murdered two people

From Metropolitan News-Enterprise in Los Angeles:

The Fourth District Court of Appeal Feb. 2 ruled that the parents of an autistic 19-year old could not be held liable to the family of two people their son killed before committing suicide.

Div. Three concluded William Freund’s actions were unforeseeable to his parents, so Karen and Dennis Freund had no duty to prevent him from hurting others.

William Freund suffered Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction. In 2005, he fatally shot the sister and father of his friend, Brandon Smith, before returning home and taking his own life.

Smith and his mother sued the Freunds for wrongful death, asserting they had negligently supervised their son. According to the complaint, the Freunds knew the medications their son was prescribed could cause “changes” in his behavior and contribute to “thoughts of hurting oneself or others.”

The Freunds were also allegedly warned by doctors to closely monitor and supervise their son and “had actual knowledge that William had acted violently in the past,” because their son had once punched his father for interfering with a videogame and slapped a classmate.

Orange Superior Court Judge Geoffrey T. Glass granted the Freunds’ motion for summary judgment, finding they owed no duty of care to third parties to control their adult son’s actions.

Justice Raymond J. Ikola, who wrote for the appellate court, agreed, reasoning that “[t]he only inference the evidence reasonably supports is that defendants could not foresee William’s violent acts because they knew of no propensity or intention of William to harm third parties (as opposed to himself or his parents).”

Ikola noted testimony from William Freund’s treating physicians about the absence of any substantial correlation between Asperger’s Syndrome and physical hostility toward others, and that the medications could cause “suicidal thinking in some patients,” but not “homicidal propensities.”

The justice also acknowledged evidence of William Freund’s aggressive conduct toward his parents, but emphasized the record contained only one instance in which he acted in anger toward another person, and he had only lashed out in self-defense after having been struck first.

Ikola further reasoned the evidence of alterations in William Freund’s personality shortly before the shootings “may have created a foreseeable risk that William might physically attack his parents (on whom he blamed his problems) or hurt himself, the behavior provided no forewarning that William might shoot and kill the father and sister of his only friend, or any other third party.”

To impose a duty of care on defendants, Ikola suggested, “could cause greater harm in future cases by encouraging parents to disassociate from their adult children with chronic serious problems,” emphasizing “[d]efendants cannot be morally blamed for trying to help their son, rather than abandon him.”

Justices Kathleen O’Leary and Richard D. Fybel joined Ikola in his decision.

The case is Smith v. Freund, G043486.