TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A South Florida appeals court Wednesday ruled that parents could not be found negligent for the actions of their adult son who shot and killed four relatives during a Thanksgiving gathering in 2009 in Palm Beach County.
The estates of three murder victims filed negligence claims against Michael and Carole Merhige, whose son Paul is serving seven life sentences for the shooting rampage.
The lawsuits alleged, in part, that the elder Merhiges had created a "foreseeable zone of risk" by inviting Paul Merhige to the family dinner, according to Wednesday's ruling by the 4th District Court of Appeal.
Paul Merhige had mental-health issues and a history of violence, including threatening members of his immediate and extended family. But a three-judge panel of the appeals court, in a 15-page opinion, upheld a circuit court ruling that dismissed the negligence claims against Michael and Carole Merhige.
"Family members with psychological or behavioral problems are a common occurrence in Florida and elsewhere,'' said the appeals-court opinion, written by Judge Robert Gross and joined by Chief Judge Dorian Damoorgian and Judge Carole Taylor.
"Families should be encouraged to include a troubled family member in the family circle. A holding that the Merhiges owed a legal duty to the members of their family and extended family in this case 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, where unhappy outcomes are all too common. Difficult and tragic cases such as this one should not set the standard for the entire universe of family interaction."
Paul Merhige, now 39, ate Thanksgiving dinner at the family gathering and then went to his car to get a gun. He killed his two sisters, Carla Merhige and Lisa Merhige Knight, an aunt, Raymonde Joseph, and a 6-year-old cousin, Makayla Sitton.
Lawsuits were filed by representatives of the estates of Knight, Joseph and the Sitton child.