the killer at thurston high
THE  LAWSUITS  A summary of the civil lawsuits being filed in school shootings, as of January 2000

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Civil lawsuits seeking to place blame and recover damages for the actions of violent juveniles have proliferated in the wake of school shootings across America, including that of Kip Kinkel. In most cases, injured children or their parents are suing the parents of school shooters for failing to supervise or control their children. In some instances, school officials and other government agencies are being sued for failing to prevent the tragedies. There also have been suits brought against gun manufacturers. And in the case of the shooting incident in Paducah, Kentucky, parents of the three girls killed by Michael Carneal are attempting to hold the media legally responsible for inducing violence, suing 25 companies that produce violent video games, movies, and web sites. These lawsuits reflect various attempts to resolve the unsettling issues raised by school shootings, a natural outgrowth of the need to find an explanation, and to hold someone accountable.

The lawsuits are raising some controversial issues, however. Some have created divides within the communities involved, with critics saying that they unnecessarily draw out the pain and tragedy of the shooting incidents, and create an image of the victims as exploiting tragedy for money. Suits against school districts and other government agencies, particularly, are characterized as searches for "deep pockets" that victims are trying to take advantage of.

Plaintiffs defend their actions on various grounds. Many have legitimate needs to recover money for medical expenses. For example, the mother of one of the children wounded at Columbine was forced to give up her job in order to care for her injured son, and needs to replace the lost income. In cases where there was no criminal trial, such as Columbine, some victims believe that a civil lawsuit could provide them with answers to lingering factual questions and an opportunity for healing and closure. And ultimately, many argue that legal intervention is necessary to address this perceived crisis. Parents, they say, must be encouraged to be more involved with and aware of what's going on with their children, gun manufacturers must be held accountable for injuries caused by their products, and media producers must be discouraged from creating and marketing violent products for children.

The law in this area, especially in cases involving parental liability, is still evolving. Most states do not hold parents responsible for the violent actions of their children, unless they have specific knowledge of the actions beforehand or help them in some way. In no case has a media company been held responsible for actions allegedly incited by its products, and for movies, especially, the suits face the legal hurdle of the First Amendment protection of free speech. A recent case however, has offered a glimmer of hope to those thinking to sue media companies. The U.S. Supreme Court gave the green light for a suit against the producers of "Natural Born Killers. " The plaintiffs claimed the movie was partly responsible for a series of murders. The Court said the case should go forward for trial on the facts and refused a petition to hear the case on First Amendment grounds.

As of January 2000, none of the lawsuits stemming from school shootings have been decided. The following is a summary of the actions filed.

Springfield, Oregon

The parents of Theresa Miltonberger, one of the students injured in the Thurston High shooting, have filed a $14.5 million lawsuit against Kip Kinkel and the estate of his parents, Bill and Faith Kinkel. The suit claims that Kip was negligent in entering the school and discharging weapons, and that the Kinkels were negligent in providing Kip with firearms and failing to supervise his access to them. Theresa was the most severely injured victim of the shooting; she spent 65 days in the hospital, and has bullet fragments permanently lodged in her brain, causing cognitive impairment and loss of memory, according to the lawsuit. The suit aims to recover damages for her medical bills, pain and suffering, loss of future income and emotional distress. According to her attorney, Art Johnson, quoted in The Denver Post, her medical bills have already exceeded $250,000, and are expected to continue for life.

The family of Richard Peek, another student injured in the Thurston shooting, had filed a $250,000 personal injury suit against the Kinkel estate, but the student was killed in a hunting accident before it came to trial.

Littleton, Colorado

Michael and Vonda Shoels, parents of victim Isaiah Shoels have filed a $250 million wrongful death lawsuit against parents of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Isaiah Shoels, 18, was one of 12 shot dead by Harris and Klebold at Columbine High School in April 1999. In addition, they may be adding the manufacturers of two of the guns used by Harris and Klebold as defendants. The Shoels are represented by Geoffrey Feiger, a high-profile Michigan attorney best known for representing Dr. Jack Kevorkian and for winning a case against the television show "Jenny Jones," which claimed one guest on the show had been incited to murder another.

In addition to the lawsuit against the parents, 20 families have filed notices of "intent to sue" local government agencies, including the Jefferson County sheriff's office and the school district. Such notices are not lawsuits, they are papers required by Colorado law to be filed within 180 days of injury in order to retain the right to sue at a later date. The school district could be subject to claims that it was negligent in failing to keep the school safe and to respond to warnings about Eric Harris; the sheriff's office may be subject to claims that they were negligent in not investigating or responding to complaints they had received about Harris' activities.

Among the families filing notices were the parents of Dylan Klebold. The Klebolds claim that the sheriff's office may have been negligent by failing to inform them of a 1998 complaint filed with the office that Harris had threatened to kill another student, and that the office had knowledge of a web site maintained by Harris in which he reportedly posted diagrams for building bombs and contained menacing statements and references to mass murder. Had they known of danger, the Klebolds say, they could have taken steps to prevent it by restricting their son's contact with Harris. Their letter of intent to sue claimed that the negligence of the sheriff's office caused them to be subject to "substantial damage claims, vilification, grief, and loss of enjoyment of life." According to their attorney, they will only seek damages equivalent to the damages sought from them in suits by victims.

Paducah, Kentucky

Michael Carneal, then 14, opened fire on a student prayer meeting in December 1997, killing three students--Jessica James, 17, Kayce Steger, 15, and Nicole Hadley, 14--and wounding five others. He pleaded guilty but mentally ill and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for at least 25 years. The parents of the three girls killed have filed suit in state and federal court. The state suit, filed December 2, 1998, initially named more than 50 defendants including Carneal, his parents, students who had seen Carneal with guns and told no one, and school officials who, the suit claims, ignored behavior that should have been cause for disciplinary action against Carneal. The number of defendants was reduced to 15 when the judge dismissed all teachers, school officials and five of the students. Remaining defendants are the shooter, parents, a neighbor from whom he took the weapon, and 11 students who allegedly had knowledge that he was going to carry out a violent act. The trial is to start in August, 2000. The plaintiffs are seeking a total of $120 million in damages, for pain, suffering and mental anguish, loss of earning capacity, and punitive damages.

A separate suit has been filed in federal court, naming as defendants 25 media companies, including Time Warner and the makers of the film, "The Basketball Diaries;" Sega of America, Inc. and 11 other companies making violent computer games including "Doom" and "Mortal Kombat;" and Meow Media, producer of a pornographic web site. The suit, which seeks $130 million in damages, claims that Carneal was influenced by bloody shoot-em-up video games, violent internet pornography, and a fantasy sequence in the movie, "The Basketball Diaries" in which star Leonardo DiCaprio guns down teachers and classmates at school. The claims are based on a report from Yale University medical professor Diane Schetky, an adolescent psychiatrist, who testified at Carneal's trial that he was "conditioned" by exposure to violent media.

Jonesboro, Arkansas

On March 24, 1998, Andrew Golden, 11, and Mitchell Johnson, 13, staged a false fire alarm and then opened fire on students and teachers as they exited, killing four students and one teacher, and wounding 10 others. An Arkansas judge found the two guilty of five counts of capital murder and ten counts of battery. They received the maximum sentence possible under Arkansas law: placement in a juvenile facility until they turn 18, possibly until they turn 21, if a facility is built for 18-21 year olds. Families of the five killed are suing the shooters, their parents for negligent training and supervision, and the manufacturer of the guns they used for not equipping the guns they made with trigger lock devices. Also named as a defendant is Golden's grandfather, from whom the boys took the guns.

Pearl, Mississippi

In December 1998, Kaye Long, mother of one of the two girls killed in the shooting spree at Pearl High School by 16 year old Luke Woodham, filed a lawsuit against the school district and the parents of six students, claiming that they could have taken steps to prevent the rampage. The students were part of a cultlike group, called the Kroth, and had initially been charged with conspiracy in Woodham's criminal trial. Long's suit claims that their parents should have known of the group's activities and taken action to prevent it. The case is scheduled to go to trial in January, 2000.

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