CASE

“Did she have a legal duty to report or intervene?”

State v. Kuntz

995 P.2d 951 (MT 2000)

Bonnie Kuntz, the defendant, was accused of negligently causing the death Warren Becker, a man she lived with, by stabbing him and then failing to call for medical assistance. She moved to strike the portion of the charge pertaining to her failure to summon medical aid. The District Court, Yellowstone County, denied her motion. The Montana Supreme Court remanded.

NELSON, J.

Facts

Yellowstone County Sheriff’s deputies were dispatched on April 19,1998, to the home of Bonnie Kuntz and Warren Becker to investigate a reported stabbing. When the deputies arrived at the trailer house, Becker was dead from a single stab wound to the chest. Kuntz, who was waiting for medical and law enforcement personnel to arrive, told the deputies she and Becker had argued the morning of April 18, 1998. At some point during the day, both parties left the trailer home. After Kuntz returned that evening, at or before midnight, a physical altercation ensued.

Kuntz and Becker, who had never married but had lived together for approximately six years, were in the process of ending what is described as a stormy relationship. When Kuntz arrived at the mobile home that night, she discovered that many of her personal belongings had been destroyed, the interior of the home “trashed,” and the phone ripped from the wall. Kuntz told the deputies that she then went into the kitchen. There, allegedly, Becker physically attacked her, and at one point grabbed her by the hair, shook her, and slammed her into the stove.

Kuntz told the deputies that she could not clearly remember what happened, only that she had pushed Becker away and had then gone outside by the kitchen door to “cool off.” When she thought that the fight was over, and that it was safe to go back inside, she returned to the kitchen. She discovered a trail of blood leading from the kitchen through the living room and out onto the front porch where she found Becker collapsed face-down on the porch. She alleges that she rolled him over. Becker was unresponsive.

Kuntz then alleges that she found Becker’s car keys in one of his pockets, got in his vehicle, drove to a friend’s house several miles away, and called her mother. Kuntz does not allege that she personally contacted medical or law enforcement personnel; rather, authorities were apparently summoned by Kuntz’s sister-in-law, who lived next door to Kuntz’s mother, sometime within an hour after the stabbing. Kuntz did return, however, to the trailer home where she waited for the deputies and medics to arrive.

On June 23, 1998, Bonnie Kuntz was charged with negligent homicide for causing the death of Warren Becker by stabbing him once in the chest. Although she admitted stabbing Becker and causing his death, Kuntz entered a plea of not guilty based on the defense of justifiable use of force.

On November 6, 1998, shortly before the scheduled trial date, the State filed an amended information [a formal document] charging the same offense but alleging that Kuntz caused the death of Becker by stabbing him once in the chest with a knife and by failing to call for medical assistance. Kuntz again entered a plea of not guilty. On December 18, 1998, Kuntz filed a motion to dismiss the amended information or in the alternative to strike the allegation that the failure to seek medical assistance constituted negligent homicide. Following a hearing and briefing, the District Court…[denied] Bonnie Kuntz’s motion to dismiss the amended information on January 8, 1999. Kuntz sought [review]…. In an order dated March 23, 1999, this Court accepted original jurisdiction at the request of both parties.

Opinion

For criminal liability to be based upon a failure to act, there must be a duty imposed by the law to act, and the person must be physically capable of performing the act.

[A material element of every offense is a voluntary act, which includes an omission to perform a duty which the law imposes on the offender and which he is physically capable of performing See § 45-2-202, MCA]

As a starting point in our analysis, the parties here have identified what is often referred to as “the American bystander rule.” This rule imposes no legal duty on a person to rescue or summon aid for another person who is at risk or in danger, even though society recognizes that a moral obligation might exist. This is true even “when that aid can be rendered without danger or inconvenience to” the potential rescuer….

But this rule is far from absolute. Professors LaFave and Scott have identified seven common-law exceptions to the American bystander rule: 1) a duty based on a personal relationship, such as parent-child or husband-wife; 2) a duty based on statute; 3) a duty based on contract; 4) a duty based upon voluntary assumption of care; 5) a duty based on creation of the peril; 6) a duty to control the conduct of others; and 7) a duty based on being a landowner. See LaFave & Scott, § 3.3, at 283-289. A breach of one of these legal duties by failing to take action, therefore, may give rise to criminal liability. Our review of the issues presented here can accordingly be narrowed to two of the foregoing exceptions as briefed by the parties and identified by the District Court: 1) a duty based on a personal relationship, and 2) a duty based on creation of the peril.

One of the lead authorities on the personal relationship duty arose in Montana. In the widely-cited case of State v. Mally (1961), 139 Mont. 599, 366 P.2d 868, this Court held that under certain circumstances a husband has a duty to summon medical aid for his wife and breach of that duty could render him criminally liable. The facts of the case described how Kay Mally, who was suffering from terminal kidney and liver diseases, fell and fractured both her arms on a Tuesday evening. Her husband, Michael Mally, put her to bed and did not summon a doctor until Thursday morning. “During this period of time, as she lay there with only the extended arm of death as a companion, she received but one glass of water.” Although his wife ultimately died of kidney failure, Mally was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, a forerunner of Montana’s negligent homicide statute, because his failure to act hastened his wife’s death.

In Mally, however, we alluded to a limitation of this rule which is a point of contention between the parties here. We cited to People v. Beardsley (1907)…. [In Beardsley,] the Michigan Supreme Court concluded that the legal duty imposed on the personal relationship of husband and wife could not be extended to a temporary, non-family relationship. The court held that a married defendant had no duty to summon medical help for his mistress,who was staying in his house for the weekend, after she took morphine following a bout of heavy drinking and fell into a “stupor.”

We agree with the State, as well as myriad commentators over the years…that Beardsley is indeed “outmoded.”… See, for example, Graham Hughes, Criminal Omissions, 67 Yale L.J. 590, 624 (1958) (stating that Beardsley “proclaims a morality which is smug, ignorant and vindictive”)…; See also State v. Miranda (1998), 715 A.2d 680, 682 (concluding that person who is not biological or legal parent of a child but who establishes a “familial relationship” with live-in girlfriend has duty to protect child from abuse)…

Applying the foregoing to the facts here, we conclude that Kuntz and Becker, having lived together for approximately six years, owed each other the same “personal relationship” duty as found between spouses…. This duty, identified as one of “mutual reliance”…would include circumstances involving “two people, though not closely related, [who] live together under one roof.” To hold otherwise would result in an untenable rule that would not…impose a legal duty to summon medial aid on persons in a relationship involving cohabitation. Nevertheless, this holding is far from dispositive in establishing a legal duty under the facts presented.

We agree with the District Court that the duty based on “creation of the peril” is far more closely aligned with the factual circumstances here. Undoubtedly, when a person places another in a position of danger, and then fails to safeguard or rescue that person, and the person subsequently dies as a result of this omission, such an omission may be sufficient to support criminal liability.

This duty may include peril resulting from a defendant’s criminal negligence, as alleged here. The legal duty based on creation of the peril has been extended in other jurisdictions to cases involving self-defense…. [However,] the legal duty imposed on personal relationships and those who create peril are not absolute; i.e., there are exceptions to these exceptions. The personal relationship legal duty, for example, does not require a person to jeopardize his own life. Furthermore, the duty does not arise unless the spouse “unintentionally entered a helpless state,” or was otherwise incompetent to summon medical aid on his or her own behalf.

Similarly, the law does not require that a person, who places another person in a position of peril, risk bodily injury or death in the performance of the legally imposed duty to render assistance…. Therefore, where self-preservation is at stake, the law does not require a person to “save the other’s life by sacrificing his own,” and therefore no crime can be committed by the person who “in saving his own life in the struggle for the only means of safety,” causes the death of another. Even states such as Vermont that have adopted a “Good Samaritan Doctrine” which--contrary to the American bystander rule--imposes a legal duty to render or summon aid for imperiled strangers, do not require that the would-be rescuer risk bodily injury or death. Thus, although a person may still be held accountable for the results of the peril into which he or she placed another, the law does not require that he or she risk serious bodily injury or death in order to perform a legal duty.

With these general principles in place, we now turn to the issue… Does one who justifiably uses deadly force in defense of her person nevertheless have a legal duty to summon aid for the mortally wounded attacker? Our analysis of this issue is narrowed to whether the legal duty to summon aid, based on the defendant’s personal relationship or creation of peril, extends into circumstances where the defendant’s alleged use of justifiable force places his or her aggressor in need of medical attention. The State contends that even if Kuntz’s use of force was justified, a proven subsequent failure by her to summon aid could constitute a gross deviation from ordinary care. Thus, the State’s amended information charging Kuntz with negligent homicide for stabbing Becker and then failing to immediately call for medical assistance was proper and should not be stricken. Although the use of force may be justified, to not hold such a person criminally accountable for the subsequent omission would, according to the State, “encourage revenge and retaliation.”

Whether inflicted in self-defense or accidentally, a wound that causes a loss of blood undoubtedly places a person in some degree of peril, and therefore gives rise to a legal duty to either 1) personally provide assistance; or 2) summon medical assistance. Accordingly…we hold that when a person justifiably uses force to fend off an aggressor, that person has no duty to assist her aggressor in any manner that may conceivably create the risk of bodily injury or death to herself, or other persons. This absence of a duty necessarily includes any conduct that would require the person to remain in, or return to, the zone of risk created by the original aggressor. We find no authority that suggests that the law should require a person, who is justified in her use of force, to subsequently check the pulse of her attacker, or immediately dial 9-1-1, before retreating to safety.

Under the general factual circumstances described here, we conclude that the victim has but one duty after fending off an attack, and that is the duty owed to one’s self--as a matter of self-preservation--to seek and secure safety away from the place the attack occurred. Thus, the person who justifiably acts in self-defense is temporarily afforded the same status as the innocent bystander under the American rule. LaFave & Scott, § 3.3(a)(5), at 288 (suggesting that “one who innocently creates danger is on principle in the same position as that of a bystander who happens by when a situation of danger has developed”).

Finally, we conclude that the duty to summon aid may in fact be “revived”…but only after the victim of the aggressor has fully exercised her right to seek and secure safety from personal harm. Then, and only then, may a legal duty be imposed to summon aid for the person placed in peril by an act of self-defense. We further hold that preliminary to imposing this duty, it must be shown that 1) the person had knowledge of the facts indicating a duty to act; and 2) the person was physically capable of performing the act. It must be emphasized, however, that once imposed, a proven breach of this legal duty may still fall far short of negligent homicide…which requires a gross deviation from an ordinary or reasonable standard of care.

For these reasons, the District Court’s order denying Kunz’s motion to amend or strike the amended information is affirmed, and this case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions

TRIEWEILER, J. concurring and dissenting.

I concur with the majority’s conclusion that two people who have cohabited for a prolonged period of time may, under certain circumstances, owe each other the same duties flowing from their personal relationship as would be owed from one married person to his or her spouse. I also concur with the majority’s conclusion that when a person justifiably uses force to defend herself against an aggressor she has no duty to assist her aggressor if to do so would create a risk of harm to her.

However, I disagree with, and therefore dissent from the majority’s conclusion that at some point, a victim of aggression who has justifiably defended herself has a “revived” obligation to come to the assistance of the person against whom it was necessary for her to defend herself. The majority has concluded that although circumstances occur which are so extreme that a woman is justified in the use of deadly force to defend herself, a jury can, after the fact, in the safe confines of the jury room, conclude that at some subsequent point she was sufficiently free from danger that she should have made an effort to save her assailant and that because she didn’t she is still criminally liable for his death even though at some previous point in time she was justified in taking his life. This result is simply unworkable as a practical matter and makes poor public policy….

I conclude that when a person is attacked by another and reasonably believes that deadly force is necessary to prevent imminent death or serious bodily injury to herself and therefore uses deadly force to defend herself, she has no duty, “revived” or otherwise, to summon aid for her assailant. The fact that the use of force by her was justifiable as defined by statute is a complete defense to any charge based on her assailant’s death.

Nor, has the majority cited any authority for its conclusion that a person who causes another’s death in justifiable defense of herself can be criminally liable for then failing to summon aid for her assailant. There is no authority for good reason. A person driven to the point of having to violently defend herself from a violent attack should not, at the risk of criminal punishment, be required to know that at some undefined point in time she has a duty to save that same person. A normal person under those circumstances is incapable of undertaking such an intellectual process. To require her to do so is inconsistent with the traditional notion that when criminal liability is based on the failure to perform a duty, it must be a plain duty which leaves no doubt as to its obligatory force.

For these reasons I dissent from the majority’s conclusion that a person justified in the use of deadly force in self-defense, ever has an obligation to come to the aid of her assailant….

Questions

  1. List all the facts relevant to deciding the nature of Bonnie Kunz’s relationship with Warren Becker.
  2. Assuming Kunz was in a qualifying special relationship with Becker, List all the facts relevant to deciding exactly how she carried out her legal duty.
  3. Explain and list the “exceptions to the exception” to the personal (special) relationship exception.
  4. In your opinion, does Kunz fit within any of the exceptions to the exception? Back up your answer with facts and arguments from the majority and dissent’s opinions.
  5. When can a legal duty to act be “revived,” according to the majority opinion?
  6. In your opinion, was Kunz’s legal duty (if there was one) revived? Back up your answer with the facts and the opinions and arguments of the majority and dissenting opinions.
  7. Summarize the dissent’s objections to the majority opinion. Do they make sense to you? Defend your answer.