Liability and School Shootings

Who should pay for the dead and injured?

Remember the days when reporters interviewed bystanders after an incident of gun violence who exclaimed: “I never thought it could happen here!”

That comment was oddly absent on Monday when a student shot a teacher and two classmates at a public middle school in Sparks, NV.  The shooter then killed himself. The teacher died of his wounds. The two boys who were shot were sent to a local hospital in critical condition.

When I was going to middle school, a school shooting would have been a bona-fide shock. That was before the tragedies at Columbine High School and Sandy Hook Elementary School. The sad reality is that few people today –at least those who read the news occasionally –  are truly surprised when a shooting occurs anywhere.

It’s often overlooked that a school shooting in a form of workplace violence for the employees of a school system.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act (Act) requires employers to furnish employees with a place of employment that is free from recognized hazards that cause or are likely to cause an employee’s death or serious physical harm.

At some point, the prevalence of gun violence at schools and other public facilities may give rise to a question of liability.

Officials said that one patrol officer was assigned to provide security at the middle school, as well as at least five elementary schools at various locations in the town. Is that reasonable in today’s climate of gun violence?  Police are routinely assigned to provide security at high schools. Was the town and school system negligent for failing to provide better security at the middle school?

A school shooting is not like an act of God – an earthquake, hurricane or tornado.  Because of the lack of sane gun control laws in America, it is entirely predictable that school shootings will occur and that teachers (as well as the children they teach) are at risk.

As I write this, police have yet to disclose any details about the identity of the school teacher. Was he a family breadwinner?  Did he have children who will want to go to college some day? Was he a son caring for elderly parents?

Should the spouse and children  or parents left behind pay for the economic loss resulting from the death of this beloved family member,  now gone because of a senseless act of gun violence? Should the town and its financially hard-pressed school system pay?  Or should gun owners and gun manufacturers pay?

Given the pathetic lack of action by the U.S. Congress, it could be that courts ultimately will have to address the issues of liability stemming from school shootings.  Of course, there’s little reason to think the courts will do a better job than the U.S. Congress given the reality of  partisanship and  the hunt for campaign contributions to judicial elections that cost millions.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the cost of workplace violence to an organization is “staggering. It is impossible to overstate the costs of workplace violence, because a single incident can have sweeping repercussions.”  The DOL cites, among other things, the loss of life or physical or psychological repercussions felt by the victims as well as the victim’s family, friends, and co-workers, and the loss of productivity and morale that sweeps through an organization after a violent incident.