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Indiana Court of Appeals courtroom

Three-judge panels of the Indiana Court of Appeals regularly hear oral arguments in this courtroom at the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis.

INDIANAPOLIS — A gun owner who keeps a loaded handgun on the seat of an unlocked vehicle parked in a public place is not liable under Indiana law if a child steals the weapon and accidentally shoots and kills another child, the Court of Appeals has ruled.

Matthew Kendall, 16, of Huntingburg, died July 22, 2016, after he was shot in the head with a Glock 9 mm handgun that was taken earlier that day by a 15-year-old boy who was showing the weapon to Kendall when it discharged, according to court records.

Kendall's mother, Shelley Nicholson, sued Christopher Lee, of Huntingburg, seeking damages for negligence in connection with Lee leaving his loaded handgun visible through the windows of Lee's unlocked and unattended truck.

However, both the Dubois Circuit Court and a unanimous three-judge Court of Appeals panel said Nicholson's case cannot proceed because Indiana law immunizes gun owners from civil liability for any subsequent use of their stolen firearms.

Specifically, a 2004 statute enacted by Democratic Gov. Joe Kernan, said "a person is immune from civil liability based on an act or omission related to the use of a firearm or ammunition for a firearm by another person if the other person directly or indirectly obtained the firearm or ammunition for a firearm through the commission of the following: burglary; robbery; theft; receiving stolen property; or criminal conversion."

Judge John Baker, writing for the Court of Appeals, said the plain language of House Enrolled Act 1349 required the court rule in favor of Lee, because regardless of how Lee stores his handgun, if the handgun is stolen, he is statutorily immune from liability for any resulting harm.

The appeals court said it was unpersuaded by Nicholson's claim that, notwithstanding the immunity statute, Lee and all gun owners have a well-accepted duty to exercise reasonable and ordinary care in the storage and safekeeping of their handguns.

Nicholson told the court that Lee’s storage of his handgun in an unlocked, unattended vehicle in a public area "failed to satisfy the most basic, non-burdensome step available for safe storage."

In response, Baker said Nicholson's "creative argument" was insufficient to overcome the clear intent of the General Assembly: "To shield gun owners from liability for failing to safely store and keep guns, when the gun that was unsafely stored is procured by a crime and then later used to commit another crime."

Nicholson has until mid-March to decide whether to ask the Indiana Supreme Court to review the appellate and trial court rulings.

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Statehouse Bureau Chief

Dan is Statehouse Bureau Chief for The Times. Since 2009, he's reported on Indiana government and politics — and how both impact the Region — from the state capital in Indianapolis. He originally is from Orland Park, Ill.