The question pretty much covers it, but I will elaborate. Let's imagine I am in a public place, such as a mall, or some other large gathering of people, when I hear gunshots ring out. Let's say that I am armed with a lawfully acquired and registered firearm, with a concealed carry permit. As I approach the location of the gunshots, I see a man armed with an assault rifle, gunning people down. To be clear, I witness this man killing others. In response, I raise my weapon and fire several rounds at the man while rushing him. He drops to the ground, and I grab his weapon, then go about performing first aid to all of the victims that I can.

After is it all over, forensics comes on scene and processes all the evidence. Probably weeks or months later, it is discovered that a pistol round, not a rifle round, is the cause of death for one of the victims, and they match that round to my weapon. Could I be held criminally and/or civilly responsible? Are there any specific laws that cover this specific scenario? If the state matters for the answer, I care about these states in order:

  1. Colorado
  2. California
  3. Texas
  4. Florida
  5. New York
  6. Pennsylvania
  7. Illinois

If you cannot find an answer for any of these states specifically, I will accept any state.

***It would be a huge bonus if you could include any actual incidents in which, either, a Good Samaritan who is trying to save someone else's life, accidentally shoots a bystander, or a case in which someone defending themselves accidentally shoots a bystander, regardless of whether or not the person faced criminal or civil proceedings. To be clear, I am NOT talking about any case in which the person who accidentally shot the bystander is a law enforcement officer, as I know they are covered by different laws. Thanks.

  • 1
    You may want to separate the criminal vs civil aspects, as there are both legal and "de facto" factors that differ between the two.
    – sharur
    Apr 4, 2022 at 20:50
  • There is a recent Colorado law involving a LEO shooting and killing the good guy with a gun mistaking him for the cop killing bad guy in Arvada, Colorado, but as you note, the analysis is different in that case and I can't think of one I've seen with your fact pattern.
    – ohwilleke
    Apr 4, 2022 at 22:30

1 Answer 1


Could I be held criminally and/or civilly responsible?

Probably not criminally in Colorado. You would lack the requisite intent (criminal negligence which verges on recklessness) for even the lowest level homicide offense (negligent homicide), and unlike when a criminal trying to murder someone accidentally kills someone else, the doctrine of transferred intent doesn't create criminal liability because your primary target was one you were authorized by the defense of other statute to use deadly force against.

For civil liability in Colorado, the standard would be "negligence", which means, did you take the care of a reasonable person under the circumstances (engaged in the lawful business of defending others with a deadly weapon) to not hit bystanders. This would probably go to a jury and the claim would be covered by your homeowner's or renter's insurance in all likelihood. You would be a very sympathetic defendant in front of a jury.

A case like that would be fact intensive and could go either way. It is a case in which the quality of lawyering would probably matter a lot. A ricochet off a hard surface to hit a bystander who was not in your line of fire would probably not be sufficiently foreseeable to impose liability (or would limit your liability to a very low percentage of the total). So would a victim you didn't see because the victim was in rapid motion or hidden behind an opaque but not bullet proof object. Other scenarios could conceivably be more culpable, for example, if the active shooter was holding the bystander in a hostage situation.

Also, the jury would allocate 100% of the liability between you and the criminal as a "non-party at fault" and that would probably significantly reduce your liability even if the jury found that you had some civil negligence. Maybe the active shooter would be found 90% at fault, and you 10% at fault, for example, if the jury thought that a reasonable person would have taken more care not to hit bystanders. But, since the victim would probably be 0% at fault, the odds of a full exoneration are lower than in cases where the victim is at fault, since it the victim is majority at fault there is no liability.

The civil liability analysis would different if a law enforcement officer had deputized before you took action (which could be done orally). If that had happened, you would probably be immune from civil liability entirely.

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