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What Do Guns In Schools Mean In Terms of Personal Injury Law? (in the USA)

Consideration was given for the editing and publication of this post.

We are currently in the midst of a massive gun debate in this country, being spearheaded by a large number of high-profile mass shootings in recent years. One of the most memorable is a shooting at a high-school in Parkland, Florida. Many people have different viewpoints on it, some taking a political stance on gun rights, others looking at mental health, and others looking at questions that allowed the shooter to slip through the cracks prior to the tragedy.

We’re going to take a different look at the situation and fallout, an objective one. This isn’t out to prove anyone right or wrong, just to take a look at how the changing climate affects personal injury law in the future.

When A School Shooting Happens, Who Has To Pay?

Why does this matter to the injury? Well, for one, two survivors of the Parkland shooting have sued the school, the FBI, and the local sheriff's office.

“The failure of Broward County Public Schools and of the principal and school resource officer to adequately protect students, and in particular our client, from life-threatening harm, were unreasonable, callous and negligent,” Alex Arreaza, attorney for Anthony Borges, wrote in the letter of intent. “Such action or inaction led to the personal injuries sustained by my client.” As of this writing, Borges is still unable to walk after being shot five times.

Another survivor, Kyle Laman plans to sue the FBI for not acting on previous tips about the potential danger of the shooter. The second case is more suitable for another discussion, but the first opens up a discussion of who is truly on the hook legally when a school shooting happens.

According to JR Reyna, a personal injury attorney in Texas, “Only certain individuals are empowered to bring a wrongful death claim in Texas. The surviving parents, children and a spouse can initiate a wrongful death claim. They can file as a group or one person may file individually.”

If the parents, children or spouse fail to file a wrongful death claim no later than three months after the decedent’s death, the executor or the personal representative can file the claim instead. Adult children may also file wrongful death claims because of the death of a parent in Texas. Furthermore, adopted children may be empowered to file wrongful death lawsuits.”

Can we extend this line of thinking to personal injury in general? Maybe. Your basic personal injury case is built around negligence, the failure to exercise reasonable care. A good example of this is a car accident, where someone is hurt because another driver was distracted and didn’t pay attention to the road. Note that in Arreaza’s statement, he specifically mentions negligence on the part of the school district and school resource officer. This is a deliberate decision. Several other victims of school shootings have sued school districts in the past. However, success is contingent on two things:

  • The fact that the injury or death would not have occurred if not for district action.

  • Proof that the injuries were due to the district’s negligence.

In the past, this has been difficult to prove. For example, is there a definitive link between failing to act with a troubled student and school shooting? Morally, maybe. Legally, it’s a bit harder to create that iron link.

The Legal Question of Armed Teachers

However, things may change in that regard. There is a growing movement to arm individual teachers in classrooms, but there is a question as to whether or not this opens them up to lawsuits. Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue as they are public employees. However, state law differs. In Florida, for example, teachers can be held liable if they act with “wanton and willful disregard of human rights, safety or property.”

“The Florida test does set the bar very high, but it is not an airtight protection,” said University of Virginia law professor Kenneth Abraham, who specializes in legal risk and insurance. For example, if a teacher was distracted and disarmed, would this count? What if they accidentally discharged their gun and caused an injury?

Regardless of your own personal stances on gun rights, anyone in the personal injury law field should be keeping a close eye on these proceedings. In time, there may be a whole new set of possible lawsuits and legal categories stemming from groundwork we are seeing laid right in front of us. It’s best to adapt to this now and be ahead of the curve.