When the gunman in a mass shooting is dead, who is left to blame? Who can be held responsible in court?
The lawsuits have come after shootings in Orlando; in Newtown, Conn.; and at Virginia Tech. Now they have begun in Nevada, where Stephen Paddock opened fire on a country music concert from the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino on Oct. 1.
A lawsuit filed in Clark County District Court on Tuesday named several defendants, including Mandalay Bay and its owner, MGM Resorts; Live Nation, the concert promoter; and the maker of “bump stocks,” a device Mr. Paddock used to make his guns mimic automatic weapons. The lawsuit claims each party is at fault in the shooting, which left 58 people dead and about 500 wounded.
The suit is one of the first of what is likely to be many filed by victims of the shooting and their families, and if history is any guide, most of them will need to clear some very high bars — including legal protections for manufacturers and landowners — to succeed.
The plaintiff in the case, Paige Gasper, a 21-year-old student at Sonoma State University in California, was with a group of friends the night of the shooting, when she was shot in her right underarm. After she was trampled by others trying to escape, another concert attendee took her to a truck that raced her and a group of other people who had been shot to a hospital. She was the only passenger who survived, according to the lawsuit. After being treated for fractured ribs and a lacerated liver in an intensive care unit, Ms. Gasper returned to her family in California, where she is still recovering.
The lawsuit claims that MGM Resorts “breached their duty of reasonable care” and failed to keep the hotel “in a reasonably safe condition” because it did not monitor people coming into the hotel and did not respond quickly enough to Jesus Campos, a security officer whom Mr. Paddock shot and wounded about six minutes before he began firing on the concert crowd. It also says that MGM, which also owns the concert venue, and Live Nation did not design, build or mark adequate emergency exits and failed to “properly train and supervise employees in an appropriate plan of action in case of an emergency.”
“We live in a new normal and the music and associated entertainment industry has seen a tremendous boom,” said Nathan Morris, the lead lawyer in the lawsuit. “In today’s world the old protocol doesn’t work. At one of these huge venues the safety protocols clearly have not caught up with the notoriety and popularity of these events. Paige wants things to change. She wants to go to the next country music festival and not be freaked out when the fireworks come on.”
A spokeswoman for Live Nation declined to comment on the lawsuit. Debra DeShong, a spokeswoman for MGM Resorts, said she could not comment on the lawsuit but said that “security has been and continues to be a top priority at all of MGM Resorts.”
There have been at least two other filings in Clark County over the shooting: a class-action claim from the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence against the manufacturers and sellers of bump stocks in Nevada, as well as a petition asking the court to take control of the estate of Mr. Paddock, the 64-year-old gunman who shot himself in the head after the shooting.
Mr. Morris said that more lawsuits over the Las Vegas shooting were “inevitable,” and that his law firm had already fielded several legal questions through a hotline it set up for victims.
“She’s not an outlier,” he said of Ms. Gasper. “But she’s got a lot of bravery for being the first one to say we want answers; we want to feel safe.”
Lawsuits after mass shootings have largely struggled: A federal law shields gun manufacturers and sellers from civil claims brought by victims of gun violence. Congress passed the law, known as the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, after significant lobbying from the National Rifle Association in 2005.
Timothy D. Lytton, a law professor at Georgia State University and the author of a book about lawsuits against the gun industry, said that while a decision placing liability on the gun companies would be “unprecedented,” the hotel and concert venue could be forced to pay victims.
The lawsuits against a premise like a hotel or event site, Mr. Lytton said, would turn on the question of whether its operators were negligent.
“The real question’s going to be: Were they careless? Is there more they should have done?” Mr. Lytton said.
Charges against the maker of the bump stock will be trickier, he said.
“No plaintiff has ever obtained an unreversed jury verdict in a lawsuit against a gun manufacturer for an injury arising out of criminal use of a weapon,” Mr. Lytton said. “The argument,” he added, referring to the justification of the 2005 law, “is that the industry’s not responsible for gun violence — criminals are responsible.”
He said it was possible, however, there would be litigation over whether the bump stock — which some might argue is an accessory, not a gun component — is covered by the 2005 law. Slide Fire, a bump stock manufacturer named in the suit, did not respond to requests for comment.
Even as lawsuits against gun producers have sputtered, others have been filed against the event venues, schools or universities where shootings have taken place. Those lawsuits have had mixed success.
In 2008, a judge awarded an $11 million settlement to families of the victims in the massacre that killed 32 people at Virginia Tech. In 2012, two families that refused that deal were awarded $4 million each — later reduced to $100,000 — when a jury found the university had been negligent in the warning it sent out during the shooting. That ruling was overturned by the Supreme Court of Virginia the following year.
Last year, a judge dismissed a lawsuit by parents of the shooting victims at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., against the manufacturer of the weapon used in that 2012 attack. (The families are appealing to the Connecticut Supreme Court.) Still, some parents have filed a separate lawsuit against the town of Newtown and the school district, saying the school did not do enough to secure its classrooms or carry out its security protocol.
In Aurora, Colo., Marcus Weaver was shot, and his friend Rebecca Wingo killed, when a gunman stormed a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” at a movie theater in 2012. Amid the pain, nightmares and crushing grief came something else: Calls from lawyers.
“Casey Anthony’s lawyer called me and flew out to try to get us to be on the lawsuit,” Mr. Weaver, 46, said. “Everybody thought it was a slam dunk.”
Mr. Weaver decided to be part of a federal lawsuit against defendants, including Century Theaters and Cinemark, seeking damages and, he hoped, a commitment to stronger security by the movie theater.
“You’re not going to help my injuries get better, you’re not going to get my friend Rebecca back, but I felt the theater should have taken more responsibility,” Mr. Weaver said.
But he found that, just as there are legal protections for gunmakers, there are protections for the owners of public spaces where tragedy occurs. In Colorado, the Premises Liability Act generally limits landowners from responsibility for dangers on their property that they could not reasonably have foreseen. While Mr. Weaver’s lawsuit was moving through pretrial proceedings, a jury in a state court ruled in a separate lawsuit that the theater was not liable.
“They said, ‘We had no warning,’” said Marc Bern, the lead attorney on the state case, of the movie theater.
It became clear to Mr. Weaver and his lawyer, Phil Harding, that the federal case was likely to be dismissed, and Mr. Weaver said he and 40 other plaintiffs in the federal case worked briefly on a $150,000 settlement with Cinemark, which fell apart when one plaintiff turned the deal down.
The plaintiffs found themselves facing another difficult hurdle: If they tried to moved forward with the case, and lost, they could have ended up owing Cinemark money for its costs.
“Not only was I shocked, but I was just devastated,” Mr. Weaver said. “That’s justice, that’s why people avoid lawsuits.” He had no choice, he added, but to drop out of the case.
“It was almost like being shot again,” Mr. Weaver said of the experience.
Mr. Harding, the lawyer, said the case underscored the difficulty of winning civil complaints even after the horrors of a mass shooting.
”It’s David versus Goliath,” Mr. Harding said. “Here’s an individual victim who has been negatively impacted through injuries or deaths, and they’re going after a huge corporation that has unlimited funds to hire the correct lawyers and expert witnesses to win the case.”