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Liability in the Uvalde Shooting
ELI5: Negligence

Liability in the Uvalde Shooting

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On May 24, 2022, a deadly mass shooting occurred at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. This horrific tragedy claimed the lives of two teachers and nineteen children, sparking a national conversation about gun control, mental health, and reforms. Though we are still unsure of what motivated the suspect to commit such senseless violence in this case, the United States is no stranger to gun violence. In fact, the United States has a significantly higher rate of mass shootings than most other countries. If the past is at all indicative of the future, these atrocities are not going away any time soon. The conversation on how to prevent mass shootings is one that everyone ought to pay attention to and contribute to. If we dare to hope to eradicate mass shootings, we must be willing to take precautions in multiple places in order to increase the safety of everyone in our country, and especially our children. Though our country is still divided about what those precautions should be, it’s important that we figure them out soon.

The School

When lawyers talk about liability in a personal injury case, one of the things they look for is breach of duty. In the case of an armed perpetrator in a school, a school could have some liability depending on the specific circumstances. For example, if the perpetrator was a current student enrolled at the school where the shooting took place, the school could have some liability if they knew, or reasonably should have known, that the perpetrator was likely to commit acts of violence on school property. If for example the perpetrator had been talking openly in school about shooting other students, or if school teachers or staff were aware of a student’s social media post about planning to shoot up the school and ignored the potential threat, the school could have some liability. Schools are legally obligated to take reasonable precautions in preventing mass shootings. In the case of Robb Elementary School, the perpetrator was able to enter the school through the side door which was unlocked. A teacher reportedly had shut the door upon first seeing the perpetrator, however the door was not locked even though it should have been a self-locking door.

The Suspect’s Estate

Depending on the circumstances, it is possible to sue the parents of an active shooter on behalf of the victims. This normally happens when the perpetrator is underage. It has recently been announced that the families of the victims in Uvalde are going to sue the suspected perpetrator’s estate since he was 18 and legally an adult. However, the lawyer representing the families of the victims has stated that the discovery process may cause them to name more entities in the lawsuit. The lawsuit may go on to name social media, law enforcement, the school, the school district, and any other entity that they believe may have had liability, or may have breached their duty of care in this incident.

Qualified Immunity

A lot of people are ready to discuss the role that the responding law enforcement may have had in the Uvalde shooting. However, in order to properly discuss law enforcement’s response, it’s crucial that we understand all the parts of the laws pertaining to law enforcement and this incident. Most government entities in Texas have qualified immunity which may make suing a government official more difficult. Qualified immunity grants government officials, law enforcement in this case, immunity from civil lawsuits that may arise due to decisions the government officials made while on the job. In order to successfully file a civil lawsuit against a police officer, the officer must have violated a person’s rights that were “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Even then, governmental immunity may bar the lawsuit from going forward.

An Officer’s Legal Obligation

Right now, there is moral outrage over what is being reported about law enforcement’s response to the school shooting. Although many may not agree with Uvalde law enforcement’s response, when discussing the legal liability that law enforcement has, we need to separate law enforcement’s moral obligation from their legal obligation. In response to a lawsuit, a federal court recently affirmed that police officers do not have a duty to protect citizens from crimes that are occurring. Interestingly, the lawsuit this ruling came from was filed by survivors of the Parkland Shooting in Florida. This may be an obstacle in filing a claim against Uvalde law enforcement for not acting soon enough since there is now a judicial precedent stating that police are not legally obligated to protect citizens from an active shooter. However, depending on how the conversation for prevention of mass shootings goes, our country may seek to change law enforcement’s legal obligation to align more closely with the moral obligation many people feel that law enforcement has or should have had.

Law Enforcement’s Response

Accounts of law enforcement’s response to the Robb Elementary Shooting are varied. However, we do know that police remained outside the school for over 40 minutes while the alleged perpetrator was inside the school and shooting victims. Police reportedly entered the school shortly after the gunman first opened fire, but retreated after the gunman shot at them. According to some reports, law enforcement made the determination that the perpetrator was not an “active shooter” but, instead, was a “barricaded subject.” They may have also decided to treat it as a hostage situation at that point. This determination caused the officers to choose to wait for additional resources before entering the school. Due to qualified immunity, and law enforcement’s lack of legal obligation to protect citizens, legal recourse may be difficult to obtain in a situation such as what happened at Uvalde

Our Hearts Are with the Families

Though many citizens of our country have become numb to mass shootings, we cannot afford to become desensitized to the lives lost in these tragedies. The fallen victims of this unthinkable tragedy are Nevaeh Bravo, Jacklyn Jaylen Cazares, Makenna Lee Elrod, Jose Flores, Eliana Garcia, Uziyah Garcia, Amerie Jo Garza, Xavier Javier Lopez, Jayce Carmelo Luevanos, Tess Marie Mata, Maranda Mathis, Alithia Ramirez, Annabell Guadalupe Rodriguez, Maite Yuleana Rodriguez, Alexandria Aniyah Rubio, Layla Salazar, Jailah Nicole Silguero, Eliahana Cruz Torres, Rogelio Torres, Irma Garcia, and Eva Mireles. Every name listed belongs to a person that has a family who is now coping with the grief of losing a loved one. They were children, siblings, and some of them were parents of people who will never see them again. No one wants to hear about another mass shooting, and everyone should want to reduce gun violence in the United States. We need to work together to try to find solutions which will help to prevent tragedies such as the shooting at Rob Elementary School, whether or not we know what those solutions are right now.