It’s been almost a week since a heavily-armed man opened fire at a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colorado, killing 12 and injuring 58. What should have been a time of entertainment erupted instead into unimaginable violence, forever changing the lives of the victims and their loved ones in what’s been termed the largest mass shooting in US history.
As the surreal feelings of shock, trauma and grief begin to mix with the realities of recuperation and healing for some and funeral planning and burials for others, another very real possibility could make its way into the picture.
“In the next few weeks, as investigators piece together exactly what happened, the victims of the attack will likely also think about potential lawsuits,” said Andrew Lu, an attorney and legal writer for the Reuters-owned legal information site FindLaw.
It’s possible suspected shooter James Holmes would find himself the defendant in such suits, Lu said.
“Suing the medical school dropout would likely be merely a symbolic act to hold him both civilly and criminally liable for the horrendous shooting,” he said.
Century Theaters – the shooting site – could also be targeted, Lu said. Officials say Holmes exited the theater through an emergency door once the movie began. He left the door propped open while he gathered his arsenal and used it to re-enter the theater and begin the massacre.
“As a business that is attracting a late-night audience, Century Theaters owed a duty to its patrons to keep them safe. So steps like keeping emergency doors closed and having security personnel to conduct pat-downs of ticket holders may have been a good idea,” Lu said. “Then again, it could be Century Theaters took all the reasonable precautions.”
Anyone considering widening the scope of a lawsuit to include Warner Bros. or other companies involved with production of the movie itself would likely face an uphill battle, according to another Reuters article. That’s primarily because violence in video games and movies is protected under the First Amendment’s freedom of expression. Legal experts also maintain that companies are not often penalized when non-employees willfully break the law.
It is not uncommon for lawsuits to develop in the wake of mass murders. The families of the 13 victims killed in the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in nearby Littleton, Colorado, filed a $5-billion civil suit against 25 entertainment companies, including Nintendo of America and Sony Computer Entertainment. The suit claimed the companies’ “violent video games, films and sex-oriented websites” played a role in the teenaged gunmen’s decision to go on the shooting spree. It was eventually dismissed.
Also named in additional suits by families of those killed and injured at Columbine were the parents of the gunmen, the three people who helped supply the minors with the weapons used in the massacre and the Jefferson County School District and Sheriff’s Office.
Only one of the nine negligence and wrongful-death lawsuits filed against Jefferson County was allowed to proceed, resulting in a $1.5 million settlement against the sheriff’s office. Most of the remaining suits were eventually settled to the tune of more than $2 million, including the case of a family who unsuccessfully appealed the original ruling. Several others were settled later in an agreement that requires the details to remain confidential.
Similarly, families of 24 of the 32 victims killed in the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech received an $11 million settlement in a case that also compensated 18 people who were injured. Two of the deceased victims’ families declined to participate in litigation, while two others filed (and won) a wrongful death lawsuit against the university and received $100,000 each. It’s unclear whether or not additional lawsuits will be filed.
So while Holmes is being held on suspicion of first-degree murder and could be facing the death penalty, only time will tell what other consequences he — and others — may have to face.
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What do you think? Who (if anyone) should be held liable in civil suits stemming from the Colorado theater shooting rampage?
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