Jim Steinle, center, and Elizabeth Sullivan, parents of Kate Steinle, are seen here entering the courtroom during the 2017 trial of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate for the 2015 killing of 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Judge sides with feds in lawsuit over stolen gun used to kill Kate Steinle

A federal judge in San Francisco on Monday tossed out a lawsuit filed by the parents of Kate Steinle over a U.S. ranger’s gun being stolen and used in the high-profile shooting.

U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Joseph C. Spero ruled that the federal government could not be held liable for the ranger leaving his weapon in an unattended vehicle along the Embarcadero.

The gun was stolen from the ranger’s SUV days before Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, an undocumented Mexican national, fired the weapon at Steinle at Pier 14 on July 1, 2015.

Attorneys for Bureau of Land Management ranger John Woychowski argued that he had no duty under California law to prevent the shooting by securing his handgun from theft.

Spero agreed, finding that the shooting was too far removed from the theft for the government to be held liable since there was no evidence Garcia Zarate stole the gun.

“Aside from the fact that the stolen gun was used, there is no evidence that the shooting was in any way connected to the theft,” Spero wrote in his 14-page ruling.

Based on the lack of evidence around the break-in, Spero said it is possible, for example, that “the thief walked half a mile and left the gun where [Garcia Zarate] found it three and a half days later.”

“It is equally consistent with the evidence in the record, however, that the gun could have passed through the hands of any number of other people, and traveled throughout the San Francisco Bay Area or beyond, before ending up at Pier 14,” Spero said.

“Even if the gun was taken directly to Pier 14 by the thief and left there until [Garcia Zarate] found it days later,” Spero continued, “that separation in time, space, actors, and conduct would be sufficient in this court’s view to break the chain of proximate causation between Woychowski’s purportedly negligent storage of the gun and Steinle’s death.”

Spero granted a motion for summary judgement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The ruling marks another defeat for attorneys representing the Steinle family.

The parents initially filed the lawsuit against the City and County of San Francisco and Garcia Zarate himself as well as the federal government.

But the family voluntarily dismissed the case against Garcia Zarate, who was sued under an alias of Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez.

And Spero previously dismissed the case against San Francisco, finding that The City was not liable for former Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi releasing Garcia Zarate from custody without notifying immigration authorities under sanctuary city policy.

Last March, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco upheld the dismissal.

“We are disappointed in the ruling,” Alison Cordova, an attorney for the family, said in an emailed statement. “We respectfully disagree with Judge Spero, and we will be filing an appeal.”

Cordova had argued that Woychowski should have forseen the harm that leaving his firearm unattended in his SUV could have caused to others.

Woychowski left the weapon “fully loaded” in downtown San Francisco, in a backpack “with numerous other pieces of luggage and electronics strewn over the seats of the vehicle,” Cordova said.

“There is no doubt in our mind that without the ranger’s carelessness, Kate would be alive,” Cordova said.

Garcia Zarate remains in custody awaiting trial on criminal charges in federal court.

He was acquitted of murder and assault charges in San Francisco Superior Court in November 2017, but found guilty of being a felon of possession of a firearm. His attorneys argued that he shot Steinle on accident after finding the gun beneath a seat on the pier.

Then in August, an appeals court overturned the sole conviction returned by the jury for being a felon in possession of a firearm, finding that the Superior Court judge had failed to properly instruct the jury on a legal defense in the case.

Soon after the Superior Court verdict, the U.S. Attorney’s Office filed federal gun charges against Garcia Zarate. His trial is scheduled to begin next week.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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