Uvalde Shooting: Police, Guns and Schools Protected from Lawsuits

While public outrage grows in the United States over a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas last week that killed 21, the victims' relatives may never get their day in court against police, school officials, and gunmakers who, according to attorneys, enjoy special legal immunity that may protect them from being sued.

Source: Al Jazeera | Published on June 2, 2022

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As with previous school shootings, families of the 19 students and two teachers will likely face legal challenges that do not exist for workplace or other private property shootings.

"I see Uvalde as an example of legal gaps," said Erik Knockaert, a Texas lawyer who has represented mass shooting victims. He is not a representative of the Uvalde families.

Salvador Ramos, an 18-year-old gunman, used a gun made by Daniel Defense of Georgia.

The difficulty stems from three types of legal protections: qualified immunity, which shields law enforcement officers from many lawsuits based on their actions on the job; sovereign immunity, which shields governments from lawsuits; and a US federal law that shields gun manufacturers from claims by shooting victims.

According to legal experts, qualified immunity could potentially bar lawsuits against Uvalde police even though the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety has admitted that officers made the "wrong decision" in waiting for backup before confronting the shooter.

According to Jamal Alsaffar, a lawyer who represented victims of a church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, overcoming qualified immunity will depend on what the police thought about the situation when they arrived and whether protocol required them to confront the shooter.

"The timeline is critical in determining whether they can be held partially responsible for the tragedy," said Alsaffar, who is not representing the Uvalde families.

A request for comment from the Uvalde Police Department was not immediately returned.

In 2018, a federal judge in the United States dismissed a lawsuit filed against Broward County, Florida, and 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 county employees had no legal obligation to protect students from the shooter, echoing US Supreme Court rulings that the government only has a duty to protect people who are "in custody."

However, civil and criminal cases against Scot Peterson, a former deputy sheriff who was a school resource officer at the high school and was widely chastised for failing to confront the shooter, have been allowed to proceed. Those cases were allowed to go forward because Peterson had a "special relationship" with the students.

His criminal trial is currently scheduled for September, which his attorney, Mark Eiglarsh, described as "unprecedented and irresponsible," and which he feared could lead to similar charges against law enforcement in the future.

Lawyers say there could be a case against the school district if it is determined that the shooter was easily able to enter the school due to a lack of safety procedures, but it will be a difficult case.

A request for comment from the Uvalde school district was not immediately returned.

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

However, the Sandy Hook families were successful in their lawsuit against Remington, the manufacturer of the Bushmaster assault-style weapon used by shooter Adam Lanza. The company agreed to pay families $73 million and release thousands of company documents, including those relating to how it marketed the model of weapon used in the attack, which killed 20 children aged six to seven.

Under a 2005 law known as the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, or PLCAA, gun manufacturers and dealers have near-complete immunity from civil lawsuits for crimes committed with their weapons.

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

According to Jonathan Lowy, chief counsel for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a number of potentially viable claims against Daniel Defense should be considered. He believes PLCAA immunity would not apply if the company's gun could be easily modified to fire automatically.

Daniel Defense did not respond to a request for comment.

Others, however, were skeptical of following the Sandy Hook blueprint, which was based on a favorable interpretation of Connecticut law by the state's highest court.

"I would be surprised if the Texas Supreme Court has a strong appetite for expanding the exceptions to PLCAA immunity," said Tim Lytton, a gun litigation expert at Georgia State University College of Law.

Nonetheless, Lytton believes that even when the law is on the defendants' side, lawsuits can result in significant compensation.

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

The US Department of Justice also agreed to pay $127 million to Parkland families early in the litigation due to the government's failure to follow up on tips about the shooter.

"Entering into a settlement and paying compensation," Lytton explained, "is a much easier response than changing the law."