The Chicago Family Law Blog

Are Schools Legally Responsible for Injuries From School Shootings?

Some might say that we’re living in a new reality post-Columbine, post-Virginia Tech, and more recently, post-Sandy Hook. Sadly, while mass murder isn’t a new concept (see the origins of “going postal” for a prime example), the recent spate of school shootings should have educational institutions worried. Many have implemented new security measures and called for other reforms to reduce the likelihood of repeat occurrences.

Another question, which unfortunately must be asked, is what is the school’s liability in these situations? Often, the possibility of liability can provide additional incentive to increase safety measures.

We’re not implying that schools don’t care or aren’t already doing everything that they can. However, a financial incentive might help to free up additional funding from state and local governments which in turn might increase student safety.

Can a school, and by extension, the city and state, be held liable?

Unfortunately, that answer isn't exactly clear. The biggest barrier to holding a school, district, or town liable is the legal concept of sovereign immunity. This dates back to the days of English rule and is based on the concept that the King could do no wrong. It is essentially a liability shield that protects cities, states, and the federal government from being sued for any reason.

Of course, this wasn't exactly a fair situation. Governments, much like the private sector, do make mistakes and injure people. The government's victims, ideally, should not be left without compensation while a corporation's victims are compensated heavily. Many states, and the federal government, passed laws to allow certain types of lawsuits, such as a lawsuit for negligence.

One of those laws came into play in the legal aftermath of the Virginia Tech murders. The campus killing spree began with two murders in a dorm building. The gunman later entered another building and murdered dozens more. The campus failed to warn students of the gunman's presence because both the school and the police believed the shooting stemmed from a domestic dispute, reports the Christian Science Monitor.

The parents of Julia Pryde and Erin Peterson argued that the school was negligent in not warning students that a shooting had occurred on campus. The jury agreed earlier this year and awarded the families of these two victims $4 million each. The other victims' families settled without a trial. Virginia's waiver of sovereign immunity may take some of that money back, however, as it limits damages in state negligence cases to $100,000.

Does this mean families of other school shooting victims can successfully sue? And does it mean schools have an additional financial incentive to increase preventative measures? The answer will vary state-by-state. Virginia chose to waive immunity. So did the federal government. Other states may not be as willing.

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