Uvalde shooting: police, weapons and schools protected from lawsuits


As public outcry grows in the United States over a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, which left 21 people dead last week, the victims’ relatives may never have their day in court against police, school authorities and gunsmiths seeking special legal acts. immunity that can protect them, according to lawyers, will not be prosecuted.

As with previous school shootings, families of the 19 students and two teachers will likely find that any lawsuits will create legal problems that don’t exist for workplace shootings or other private property.

“I see Uvalde as an example of loopholes in the law,” said Erik Knockaert, a Texas attorney who has represented victims of mass shootings. He does not represent the families of Uvalde.

The 18-year-old gunman, Salvador Ramos, used a Daniel Defense of Georgia weapon.

The difficulty stems from three types of legal protections: qualified immunity, which protects law enforcement officers from many lawsuits over their actions at work; sovereign immunity, which protects governments from lawsuits; and a US federal law protecting gunmakers from claims by shooting victims.

Qualified immunity could potentially block lawsuits against Uvalde police, though the Texas Department of Public Safety director has admitted officers made the “wrong decision” when waiting for backup before confronting the gunman, legal experts said .

Jamal Alsaffar, who represented the victims of a 2017 shooting at a Texas church in Sutherland Springs, said overcoming qualified immunity will depend on what police thought about the situation when they arrived and whether they had to kill the shooter under protocol. confront.

“The timeline is important to understand whether they can be held partially responsible for the tragedy,” said Alsaffar, who does not represent Uvalde’s families.

Uvalde Police did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A US federal judge dismissed a 2018 lawsuit against Broward County, Florida and employees of its sheriff’s office for failing to protect students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were killed earlier that year.

The judge ruled that the sheriff and district officials had no legal duty to protect students from the gunman, following US Supreme Court rulings that said the government has only a duty to protect people “in custody.”

However, civil and criminal cases have been allowed against Scot Peterson, a former deputy sheriff who was a school resource officer in high school and was heavily criticized for failing to confront the gunman. Those cases continued because Peterson had a “special relationship” with the students.

He is currently scheduled to face his criminal trial in September, which his lawyer, Mark Eiglarsh, called “unprecedented and irresponsible” and said he feared it could lead to similar charges against law enforcement officers in the future.

Lawyers said the school district could face a case if it is determined whether the gunman easily entered the school because security procedures were not followed, but it is likely to be a difficult case.

A memorial at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas has become a shrine to the victims of the deadliest shooting at a US school in a decade, which killed 19 children and two teachers [Veronica G Cardenas/Reuters]

The Uvalde School District did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Similar claims against the school district and the city of Newtown, Connecticut by families of some of the 26 victims murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 were dismissed in 2018 under sovereign immunity.

However, Sandy Hook families were successful in a case against weapons manufacturer Remington, which made the Bushmaster assault weapon used by gunman Adam Lanza. The company agreed to pay families $73 million and release thousands of company documents, including those about how it marketed the weapon model used in the attack that killed 20 children between the ages of six and seven.

Gun manufacturers and dealers have near-universal immunity under a 2005 law known as the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, or PLCAA, which protects them from civil lawsuits for crimes committed with their weapons.

There are exceptions if a company has knowingly violated an applicable statute, and Sandy Hook families claimed that Remington violated Connecticut law regarding the marketing of the product used in the shooting.

Jonathan Lowy, chief adviser to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said a number of potentially viable claims against Daniel Defense should be considered. If the company’s weapon can be easily modified to fire automatically, PLCAA immunity probably wouldn’t apply, he said.

Daniel Defense declined to comment.

But others were less optimistic about following the Sandy Hook blueprint, which was based on a favorable interpretation of Connecticut law by that state’s highest court.

“I’d be surprised if the Texas Supreme Court has a strong need to expand exceptions to PLCAA immunity,” said Tim Lytton, a Georgia State University College law professor who specializes in gun disputes.

Still, Lytton said lawsuits could lead to significant compensation, even if the law is on the defendants’ side.

In 2020, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the law limits the school district’s $300,000 liability in the Parkland shooting. Despite this, the district agreed to pay $25 million to victims the following year.

The US Department of Justice also agreed to pay Parkland families $127 million early in the trial over the government’s failure to follow tips about the shooter.

“Settlement and pay damages,” Lytton said, “that’s a much easier response than coming up with changes in the law.”

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