2/25/2014 8:51:00 AM,
Jeff D. Gorman
(CN) - The parents of a 35-year-old Florida man who killed four family members at a Thanksgiving gathering are not liable for his actions, a state appeals court ruled.
Muriel and Jimmy Sitton hosted an annual Thanksgiving dinner in 2009 for 16 members of their family. Michael and Carole Merhige attended every year, and did so with their son, Paul, in 2009.
Paul's appearance was unusual, however, in light of the young man's escalating pattern of aggression.
Having shown signs of violence toward his family since he was 20, Paul was deemed "legally disabled" in 1996. Paul was committed three times and also tried to commit suicide by shooting himself in the chest.
The police visited the Merhige home at least 10 times between 1994 and 2006 to deal with Paul's "extremely violent and aggressive acts and expressed threats of violence."
Dr. Antoine Joseph, the host of the family's 2008 party, had even threatened to cancel the dinner if Paul planned to attend.
The Merhiges had removed Paul from their home in 2009 and set up in a condominium.
Before the dinner at the Sittons' home in Jupiter, Fla., Carole Merhige told one witness that she hoped her son "doesn't come and kill us all tonight."
Paul arrived and the family ate dinner together. He then went to get something from his car.
It was a gun, and he opened fire on the family, killing his two sisters and Joseph's wife. Paul went upstairs and also killed the Sittons' 6-year-old daughter while she slept.
With Paul serving life in prison, the victims' families sued the Merhiges. They accused the couple of creating a "foreseeable zone of risk" by concealing their invitation of Paul to the dinner.
A judge in West Palm Beach dismissed the complaints, however, after finding that the Merhiges had no duty to control the actions of their emancipated, 35-year-old son.
Florida's Fourth District Court of Appeal consolidated the cases and affirmed last week.
"In this case, there was no recognized special relationship between the Merhiges and the plaintiffs that gave rise to a legal duty to protect them from Paul's conduct," Judge Robert Gross wrote for the court. "In general, family members owe no heightened obligation to protect other adult family members from each other."
The three-judge panel added that the Merhiges' financial support of Paul did not carry with it a duty to protect others from him.
"Holding otherwise would stack an untenable burden upon the already difficult lives of parents trying to assist their mentally defective, yet otherwise independent, adult children," Gross wrote.