Once again, we hear the news that has become all too familiar: the report of a student opening fire at a school, this time at an Ohio school near Cleveland. In this horrific case, the alleged shooter is a 17-year-old student. By the time the last shot was fired, three students are killed and three wounded, two of whom were seriously injured.
Who is liable for the damages? Schools and workplaces owe the duty of care to maintain a safe environment. When a person enters a school with a firearm and begins to fire, several questions have to be asked: Was the duty owed to provide a safe environment for those who entered and attended the school breached by the failure to do so? Did the school provide a safe environment? What was done to ensure the safety of those who attend from such violence? What precautions were taken and what policies were developed and put into place to prevent such an occurrence? If the duty owed was breached, is the school liable for the damages resulting from the breach?
The other part of the determination of liability is whether or not are others who contributed to the damages. Where was the firearm obtained? Was there negligence on the part of the business that the firearm was purchased from? Was the duty owed by the business breached by any means of negligence in the transaction?
Additionally, was there any negligence on the part of the parents of the alleged shooter? What other parties may have contributed to the negligence that occurred, causing such a terrible tragedy?
These are all viable questions that the investigation of this and other like occurrences must answer. When determining liability, a thorough investigation must ensue to ascertain which parties are liable and should be held accountable. Here are some of the entities that may be named in suits and the premise for their alleged liability.
School Officials and Government Agencies
Potential Liability: Failure to provide adequate protection or to prevent the shooting from occurring.
School liability has increased over the last decade, especially in the area of tort liability.
“Courts will consider each of the elements of negligence in the context of education law when determining a school’s liability,” says Dr. Edward Dragon, Ed.D., a recognized education expert and consultant for high-profile and complicated cases. “One consideration would be if the reasonable standard of care would apply to the circumstances and did the school apply that reasonable standard of care?”
The circumstances involved in the allegations of not providing adequate protection must be examined.
“If the school had any prior knowledge that the incident may occur or had knowledge of the situation, the duty owed would be different than the duty owed to protect the students on a daily basis,” says Dragon.
If the school had no knowledge that such an event may occur, they owed the duty to provide protection under the reasonable standard of care.
Potential Liability: Failure to provide warnings and adequate safety features.
The warnings on guns—and knowledge of those warnings—have been called into question. However, children are not usually held to be able to discern the imminent danger presented by their actions when bringing firearms to school. The duty owed by the gun manufacturers to warn of their dangers and provide functioning safety features is most oftentimes proven to be met.
Gun Distributors, Dealers, and Sellers
Potential Liability: Making guns too easily accessible and available for purchase to the general public.
The Federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, in a broad sense, prohibits most civil lawsuits against firearm stores. The gun industry is heavily regulated, and dealers and manufacturers strictly adhere to the laws and controls placed upon them. When firearms end up in the wrong hands—in this case, the hands of children—the duty owed by the manufacturers and distributors has been met, and they are not typically a liable party.
Parents of the Shooters
Potential Liability: Failure to control and properly monitor their children.
Although in most states parents can be held liable for the intentional acts of their children, there is usually a monetary limit to the amounts that the parents can be responsible to pay. They are not held liable for unintentional but negligent acts.
Civil lawsuits continue to be filed in school-shooting cases. In Springfield, Ore., where a high school shooting occurred, the parents of one of the student victims injured in the shooting filed a $14.5 million lawsuit against the estate of the shooter’s parents, alleging that they were “negligent in providing their son with firearms and failing to supervise his access to them.” The parents died as a result of the actions of their son, the shooter, who also shot them.
Potential Liability: Sensationalizing and producing movies, video games, and web sites that induce violence.
Several school-shooting victims’ families have filed lawsuits against 25 entertainment companies, according to the Associated Press. One lawsuit from the school shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado seeks $5 billion in punitive damages. The victims’ lawsuit states, “Absent the combination of extremely violent video games and these boys’ incredibly deep involvement, use of, and addiction to these games and the boys’ basic personalities, these murders and this massacre would not have occurred.” This is a relatively new area in the search to hold others accountable. This will likely be an area for the courts to determine if indeed the makers of video games and web sites that introduce or promote violence are liable for contributing or causing violent behavior. We must wait as those decisions are played out in our litigation system.
School shootings have caused incomprehensible damages for families, communities, and others. While it seems that there is much criticism of those seeking monetary settlement for damages, there is a legitimate need for compensation. There are medical expenses, funeral expenses, and the loss of contributions the family member would have made financially and in other ways.
While most of the lawsuits filed in school shooting cases remain pending, we must learn from these events to better understand the risk exposure and duties owed to prevent future occurrences.