Civil Litigation Could Arise from Newtown Tragedy

Names of victims hang on a U.S. flag on a makeshift memorial in the Sandy Hook village of Newtown, Connecticut. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) Names of victims hang on a U.S. flag on a makeshift memorial in the Sandy Hook village of Newtown, Connecticut. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

The horrific tragedy that claimed 26 lives in Newtown, Connecticut is incomprehensible for the millions of us who watched the events unfold this past week. What has yet to unfold, however, is the inevitable onslaught of civil lawsuits against various people and organizations that some may potentially deem culpable for the shooting spree that began at the Lanza residence and ended at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

As we saw shortly after the Colorado movie theater massacre, a significant number of claims were presented for personal injury, emotional distress, and wrongful death. Undoubtedly, similar claims will arise in the wake of the school shootings in Connecticut.  What makes the cases more challenging is the location, in a government- funded school, where sovereign immunity potentially plays a partial role in limiting damages.  

The premise of the common law sovereign immunity doctrine is that the king, or in the case of the United States, the government, cannot be sued without its consent. In Connecticut, there is a claims commissioner to oversee this process, to the extent that the state bears any responsibility.  

Municipal Liability

Unlike the state, Connecticut municipalities have no sovereign immunity from suit, but there are several limitations and exceptions to municipal liability. Likewise, municipal officers also have immunity for discretionary actions while acting within the scope of their duties. However, there are exceptions for instances such as forseeability that result in injury.  

In addition to the laws regarding liability and immunity for the state and municipalities, Connecticut law requires local and state boards of education to pay any claims against teachers resulting from injury, death, property damage, or deprivation of civil rights occurring in the course of the individual's duties, so long as the individual's actions were not reckless, wanton, or malicious.

While Newtown, Conn. is described as a small, safe and quaint town tucked in the hills of affluent Fairfield, County, it is being reported by CBS News  that the district had recently instituted new safety protocols designed to prevent the very type of tragedy that occurred this past Friday. What is not known, according to sources at CBS, is whether the protocols were being followed. This could potentially give rise to a cause of action against the school district. 

Lines of Defense

The investigation is ongoing. According to law enforcement officials and various media outlets, it appears that a lone gunman, Adam Lanza, avoided such protocols by shattering a window and entering the school. The school's principal confronted Lanza, who then gunned her down. This line of defense disabled, the school and its inhabitants then became embroiled in a deadly rampage escalated by a troubled 20-year-old.

Arguably the first line of defense against such an attack is refocusing our efforts on improving the nation’s mental health services. Like those responsible for the Gabby Gifford shooting and the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, Adam Lanza reportedly suffered from a severe mental disorder. 

According to Priscilla Dass-Brailsford, an associate professor of psychology in the psychiatry department at Georgetown University Medical Center, our society waits for things like this to happen to shine a light on mental health, but we quickly forget.   Perhaps this time, we shouldn’t forget that there are many people suffering from mental health disorders. By being proactive in this regard, could we avoid future tragedies?  

There are also calls to revisit the nation’s gun laws, already numbering in the tens of thousands. Complicating that argument is another attack this past Friday, at a Chinese elementary school, during which a mentally disturbed person used a knife to injure or kill 22 people, most of them children.  

Be it with a gun, knife or other instrument of destruction, our society sees violent killings every day. As a nation, we have become overly desensitized to violence in general. Sadly, it has gotten to the point where only high body counts, or something extraordinary, make the news.  

Liability and Litigation

Back to the issue of liability, there will be plenty of blame spread around. Could the state have done more to identify the mentally ill Adam Lanza, and proactively treated him for his disorders?  Should the gun dealers be held accountable, despite the guns being registered to Adam Lanza’s mother who he shot before taking her weapons?   Could the schools have done more to prevent the tragedy from occurring? Were there counselors that Adam Lanza was seeing who may have had an indication of his potential for violence?  

In the wake of the Colorado movie theater massacre, an uninjured Torrance Brown sued Century Theaters, the doctors of  James Holmes, the suspected killer, and Warner Brothers. He alleged that the theater emergency door should have had an alarm, the doctors should have seen the killer’s violent tendencies and Warner Brothers caused the mayhem by virtue of creating violent movies in the past that gave Holmes destructive ideas.

Earlier this year, a jury awarded $4 million each to two families who sued Virginia Tech after the tragic 2007 massacre at that school. In suing the state, the families’ lawyers had argued at that the school should have notified the student body sooner after learning that two students had been found dead earlier in the day in an on campus dormitory prior to Seung Hui Cho going on to kill 30 other people.

What is a certainty is that lawsuits will arise from the Connecticut shootings. Some will  be justified, although the potential defendants may not. More than likely, the school district will be at the top of the list. But could the schools have done more? Do we want our schools to have armed security on the premises? Do we want entrants to schools to be required to pass through metal detectors? Do we want alarms on every window? 

As the inevitable litigation comes forth, it creates a particular challenge for those defending such actions where the sympathy factor will likely play a significant role in outcomes. It will be extremely difficult to stand in front of the parents and relatives of victims to try and deny them compensation. After all, how do you put a value on a child’s life?  But at some point we have to stop trying to assign blame against those who go out of their way to educate our society and start looking at society itself. 

The tragedy that unfolded is truly unimaginable, in particular for those of us who are parents.  As our prayers go out to the victims’ families, we must also come to the realization that nobody is immune from random acts of violence, and we need to teach our children how to be ever more vigilant. As Americans we need to reflect on the causes of the degradation of our society and bring ourselves together to fix the problems before it is too late. 

Christopher Tidball is an author, speaker and executive claims consultant.  He is the author of multiple books, including "Blocking & Tackling: The Playbook for the Winning Claims Organization." To learn more, visit www.christidball.com.

 

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