A colleague told me about the unfolding tragedy at UNLV yesterday. They knew I graduated from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. I attended from 1997 to 2001, and my friends from UNLV immediately started messaging each other. It was hard to fathom such violence at our school.
This new tragedy felt somehow worse than the 2017 shooting by Stephen Paddock at the Mandalay Bay Hotel during the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival. It hit closer to home for us. We all had attended classes and visited professors at the same spot where this disgruntled job applicant shot and killed three innocent people, injuring another.
I lay awake last night, wondering about my former professors. I felt helpless and wondered what could be done to prevent violent incidents like these.
This article discusses how the civil justice system can help victims of tragic, violent incidents like the UNLV shooting. I address how civil law and its monetary incentives may help prevent massive casualty events and individual violence.
What use is American civil law in a violent tragedy?
Large corporations spend a lot of energy and money promoting the idea of tort reform, suggesting that the civil law system gets abused by people who do not deserve it. Let me help you decide if this narrative is inaccurate, or whether there is an important role for our civil justice system.
To start, let me be clear: with any emerging tragedy, first responders are essential, especially law enforcement. Here, UNLV campus police reportedly stopped the shooter with deadly force.
There is no question that the civil law system works far more slowly than any emergency responders. There is also often a huge role for law enforcement if, for example, a criminal remains alive to be prosecuted.
Police at UNLV did precisely what was needed by charging towards danger. Police officers who rush towards an active shooter situation are heroes. These men and women deserve praise for saving lives while earning a salary many people would not take, let alone risking life and limb. It appears, in this case, that there will be no need for a criminal justice prosecution because the man who would be a defendant in a criminal case is now dead.
This matter does remind me of how things have changed. While at UNLV’s campus newspaper, my friends and I reported on campus police accusations of police brutality, including a violent drug raid on campus housing (netting no drugs) and accusations of racial profiling when my fraternity brother’s friend (a black student) was arrested by police while jogging on campus in the early morning hours. The campus did not have a good perception of police for some time, though that changed after police reforms by the campus administration, which we praised then.
While no civil lawsuits motivated the removal of the UNLV campus police chief in 2000, and the change took a drumbeat of negative attention, including coverage by local media, many times, such events spawn lawsuits aiming to secure those same systematic changes.
Civil lawsuits often arise in the aftermath of such tragedies.
Victims of tragedy will often seek answers. More importantly, they want solutions so nobody else will ever suffer what they went through.
Consider the lawsuits filed over the Feb. 14, 2018, mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where Nikolas Cruz opened fire, killing 17 people and wounding at least 17 more. In March of 2022, 40 civil cases, which included 16 of the 17 families of those killed, agreed to a settlement of $127.5 million for claims against the federal government who had been accused of failing to properly investigate pre-shooting tips, including how Cruz had amassed weapons and wanted to shoot up a school.
Other lawsuits included a suit against Scot Peterson, a sheriff’s deputy, for perceived flaws when he heard gunfire but failed to try to stop the attack. Andrew Pollock, whose daughter Meadow was killed, sued Mr. Peterson for negligence in failing to stop the attack. This lawsuit was dismissed.
Another well-known recent situation is the Uvalde Texas school shooting on May 24, 2022. The survivors filed a $27 billion class-action lawsuit against the police officers and others because, despite a reported 376 police officers from several agencies converging on the scene, the lawsuit claims police waited “seventy-seven minutes to accomplish what they were duty bound to expeditiously perform.”
Why would a victim or a survivor pursue such a lawsuit?
After talking to and representing people who have suffered significant tragedies or the loss of a loved one, we often hear these reasons to pursue a lawsuit:
- To do something productive or meaningful about the loss
- To hold the wrongdoer(s) accountable
- To prevent the same tragedy from happening again; and
- To compensate for the loss.
Such lawsuits may aim to create financial incentives to stop these situations as well as to compensate those injured for the value of their suffering. I will address each reason why a victim or a survivor might act.
Need to do something about tragic loss.
The level of helplessness I feel after hearing about a tragedy cannot compare to the helplessness of a loved one whose family member was killed or seriously injured. There are rare exceptions. At Uvalde, some police who responded had family members inside, yet even in that situation, they were apparently not allowed to charge in despite their requests. While some family members may be able to save or protect their children’s lives or protect them from more significant harm by rushing them to get medical care, many people find out well after the fact that their child has been killed.
Every parent’s goal is to prepare their child for the future, to protect and nurture them; it is an inborn instinct we all have. There can be nothing more emotional than finding out, no matter what you have done, that your child has been taken away from you. It is unnatural for children to die before their parents in any instance, and doubly tragic when they are very young and taken in a senseless, violent manner.
The drive to engage in litigation may often stem from the desire of the parent to do something, anything, about the tragedy.
Desire to hold wrongdoer(s) accountable.
If a person cannot bring back a child or loved one or solve their permanent injury, the next best thing is to hold the wrongdoer(s) accountable. All people also understand the need for justice, the feeling of making things right.
When you consider a major tragedy, there may be more than one blameworthy person. In a school shooting, the shooter is the first target for blame. Yet the shooter may not be the only person to try to hold accountable. For example, how about holding accountable:
- People who could have stopped the killing:
- Friends/law enforcement warned of plans
- Person/store who sold weapons and/or ammo negligently
- Friend/family who negligently purchased a weapon for the shooter
- Others who caused injury during or after the tragedy:
- School failed to follow safety protocol (leaving campus open)
- First responders are not trained properly
- Medical providers provide negligent care.
Now, this is a non-exhaustive list of potential targets. Furthermore, just because a parent wants to try to hold blameworthy people accountable, they are not the ones who will ultimately decide who is at fault, even if they raise the accusation. In our civil law system, ultimately, the judge and jury will decide who is accountable and to what extent. That is how the system is supposed to work.
Preventing a repeat of the tragedy through financial incentives.
At the end of the day, the main reason a person would bring such a lawsuit, and why our civil law system exists, is because this system takes a tragedy and an injured party. Holding a blameworthy person responsible shifts the responsibility for the injury onto the at-fault party. This creates financial incentives to avert future tragedies.
How would such a financial incentive work? For example, if it is shown that a gun store or a person was at fault for negligently selling or giving a deadly firearm to a shooter, which a jury concluded was the direct cause of this shooting, holding them accountable would give pause to any such person or gun store risking selling such a gun in the future. This is because any profitable business will try to avoid taking risks that can lead to financial ruin.
Similarly, what if the security at a school was lax? For example, the school had failed to spend enough money to replace broken locks. Well, while a school might lament the costs of improving their locks if a prior lawsuit has held a school responsible for failing to invest in fixing doors so that the next shooter cannot simply walk in and kill dozens of children.
Consider if law enforcement received dire warnings and failed to follow up, which led directly to many deaths. Well, while it may be expensive to follow up on every possible lead, if the financial incentives create a risk of paying a great deal of money if these leads are not followed up, and a tragedy ensues, maybe the governments will make sure they hire an additional officer to two to verify that each serious claim of a deadly school shooting is investigated properly in the future.
How do you get help if you have suffered a tragedy?
It is hard to say what sort of claim is best without looking at each case individually. There are also not always third parties to blame. This means serious injuries at work are not suitable for litigation. Hopefully, this article has provided some general insights so that you understand why we have a civil justice system, and how it can apply in tragic situations with catastrophic or deadly injuries.
Authored by Aaron Clemens, Esq.
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