Lawsuits Surrounding Active Shooter Incidents: Is the pursuit of compensation overshadowing the goal of prevention?

We have a sophisticated civil justice system in the United States. Individuals can pursue relief in local, state and federal courts with or without attorneys. Individuals have pursued cases to the United States Supreme Court without counsel to argue before the justices and seek redress for injuries. Without a doubt, our country provides an open and accessible forum to those who seek a civil remedy against a person, government or corporate entity. Those remedies range from monetary awards to injunctions. All are enforceable with the considerable authority of the courts.

When a tragedy occurs, it is reasonable and expected that people will seek the assistance of our courts. I routinely represent people on both sides of these cases. I file suit on behalf of people injured or killed by DUI drivers, armed robbers and people who are merely careless. I also defend cases filed by people who are injured or families who have lost someone. Despite the news stories about excessive verdicts, judges and juries are best known for careful consideration and reasonable verdicts. I have personally watched trial and appellate courts wrestle with tough issues and spoken with jurors after verdicts to learn how much they focused on the facts and law to arrive at a resolution. After all, in the end cases goes to a jury because the parties are unable to resolve their disputes.

There is no doubt that the policies and procedures of governments and law enforcement agencies are shaped by jury verdicts. The $8 million verdict this month in connection with the Virginia Tech shooting will get the attention of administrators irrespective of the anticipated appeal. A jury found fault and put a price on the compensation for the parents of the two students. This verdict will resonate for some time on campuses around the United States and policies will reflect this renewed focus on student safety. However, are those efforts appropriately focused on preventing future strategies?

With regard to active shooters, we are witnessing a conflict between opposing polices and philosophies. While everyone wants to prevent these tragedies, that is where the sides diverge. One side believes that high verdicts against landowners, universities and corporations will prevent future active shooter incidents. The other side understands that nothing can truly prevent the active shooter and recognizes that we can only find ways to reduce the threat and when the active shooter strikes, we must find ways to neutralize that threat as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, this debate is further complicated by the fact that the first group wants to restrict or eliminate the ability of citizens and law enforcement to react to the active shooter by limiting access to firearms. For example, LEOs have been able to carry firearms off-duty all over the United States since 2004. However, I have helped several LEOs who were criticized by college administrators for carrying firearms while attending classes. One LEO received a complaint when he wore his firearm into a day care center when he dropped off his child. He was in uniform. You just cannot make this up.

Only in rare instances do we have any advanced warning of an active shooter. Witnesses saw Colin Ferguson loading magazines on a New York City subway before he shot 25 people killing 6 on December 7, 1993.  However, more often than not, the warning signs are pieced together after the fact during the investigation. Although many active shooters have been stopped before they act out their plans, if we rely upon advance notice to reduce the number of deaths and injuries from active shooters, we will continue to be disappointed in our efforts.

Active shooter incidents are typically over within a few minutes. Intervention by LEOs or armed civilians must be swift and decisive. It is extremely rare for an active shooter to leave a scene and return some time later. Yet this was exactly what the active shooter did at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007. Part of the threat and fear of an active shooter is the lack of predictability. That will never change.

We have a jury verdict nearly five years after Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and wounded 25 others on a college campus. Long after these heartbroken parents buried their children and far into the recovery for the injured students, we are still listening to self-proclaimed experts tell us about law enforcement techniques. As I stated in a previous post, they continue to criticize our profession and blame everyone from the LEOs to gun manufacturers.

The verdicts will not protect anyone, the news articles will not save anyone and the so-called “experts” will not be around to run toward the gunshots to save lives. It will be the LEOs who respond and the armed civilians on the scene who will protect the potential victims of the next active shooter. Perhaps when both sides of the argument agree on this point, the carnage will stop or at least the numbers of injured and killed civilians will go down. It would help if the media focused half of their attention on educating the public on how to respond to these incidents and less upon the verdicts years after the funerals.

Until then, LEOs will train to respond, plan for every contingency and prepare for the inevitable criticism that follows any incident. We do not need verdicts to motivate us. It is part of the oath. Stay safe.

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