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Florida School Shooting Victims Mull Lawsuit Against Authorities

The horrific events of last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County left 17 people killed and dozens of people wounded. It also left the community, the state and the nation reeling, once again trying to make sense of the whys and the hows and who should be held responsible. Most notably, this has sparked another heated debate over access to guns and Second Amendment rights. However, it’s also an important time to examine what duty of care schools, law enforcement officials and other government entities have in keeping students safe, and who should be held accountable when those measures fail or aren’t enough. 

The Miami Herald recently reported that one 15-year-old student, shot five times in both legs, intends to sue Broward County and seek monetary damages to help cover the cost of his long-time recovery. The notice of intent to file a lawsuit names several entities, including the Broward County Public Schools, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office and the school resource officer who was on duty that day. In a briefly outlined statement, his attorney indicated actions by these entities and individuals failed to protect students (and this student in particular) from life-threatening harm, and further were unreasonable, callous and negligent. He asserted the defendants’ actions/ inaction were the proximate cause of plaintiff’s serious and lasting injuries.

Now, we must pause here for a moment to explain because it is a seemingly foreign concept that someone other than the person firing the shots could be legally responsible for the attack. Within the criminal justice system, absent any evidence of collusion or conspiracy, that is probably true. However, within the civil justice system we are looking at anybody who owed a duty of care to the person who was hurt, whether those duties were breached and whether those breaches allowed the perpetrator the access and opportunity to carry out his plots. 

Orlando injury attorneys actually see this in a fair number of cases involving violence. Typically, it is presented as a premises liability claim, wherein the owner or controller of the property had a legal duty to provide some degree of protection to the occupants and failed. What exactly that duty is can depend on the venue. For instance, a night club may have a duty to make sure they have adequate security on a Saturday night, particularly if they have had previous incidents of violence breaking out, making future incidents foreseeable. We also see it in hotels, where businesses are responsible to make sure guests have working locks and that no unauthorized individuals can enter the rooms. If they fail and someone gains entry and harms a guest – even if the hotel had no intention or previous knowledge of the attacker’s intentions – they can be held liable under theories like inadequate security.

Any claim against a school district or other government agency or employee is going to be complicated by Florida’s sovereign immunity laws. It can be difficult to prevail in such a case unless the facts of the case fall under one of the exceptions to sovereign immunity. However, damages are not to exceed $200,000 for any one person and $300,000 for all other claims arising from the same occurrence. Judgments for anything in excess of this can be paid out only with approval via a bill from the state Legislature.

In the Parkland case, the student who intends to sue said through his attorney these agencies failed their duty of care at nearly every level. The sheriff’s office had received prior reports indicating the perpetrator may be a threat – and specifically concerns were expressed he may be a “school shooter.” The sheriff’s deputy who was on scene as a school resource officer reportedly did not enter the school to aid the students, despite being armed and on site.

The teen, an athlete, has already undergone numerous surgeries and his family fears medical bills may bankrupt them.

Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights. Now serving Orlando, West Palm Beach, Port St. Lucie and Fort Lauderdale.

Additional Resources:

Teen shot five times at Stoneman Douglas High plans to sue BSO, school system, March 5, 2018, By Carli Teproff, The Miami Herald

More Blog Entries:

Overcoming Sovereign Immunity: Holding Government, Workers Accountable in Florida Injury Lawsuits, Feb. 18, 2018, Orlando School Injury Attorney Blog

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