Lawsuits over Colorado shooting unlikely to prevail

As if the blood-soaked aftermath of the Batman movie shooting massacre in Aurora, Colorado, wasn’t horrific enough, along come the opportunists who hope to profit from tragedy via frivolous lawsuits.

The first but probably not the last lawsuit filed in the wake of the shootings comes courtesy of Torrence Brown, Jr., a young man who attended the screening but was not injured. Rather than reflecting on his good fortune — something denied the 12 people who were killed, including Brown’s friend A.J. Boik, and the 59 injured during the shooting — Brown has gone on the legal warpath. He is suing Aurora’s Century 16 Theater, asserting that the theater was negligent in having an emergency door that was not alarmed or guarded. Brown is also suing alleged killer James Holmes’ doctors for mistreating his medical condition. Finally and most notably, he is suing Warner Brothers, the studio behind “The Dark Knight Rises,” charging that the film was so irresponsibly violent that audience members didn’t realize that Holmes’ shooting rampage wasn’t part of the film. “Somebody has to be responsible for the rampant violence that is shown today,” Brown’s lawyer, Donald Karpel, told the website TMZ.

One can certainly sympathize with Brown for his beyond-awful experience and what is no doubt the painful loss of his friend. But it’s hard to see the justification for his suit, other than the promise of a payoff from a deep-pocketed Hollywood studio. Complaints about inadequate security are inevitable after shootings like Aurora, but short of preparing for the improbable likelihood of a paramilitary assault, which is what Holmes carried out, it’s not clear that the theater could reasonably have done much more to protect its patrons. As for Holmes’ medical condition, it has not yet been determined, so suing doctors for failing in their duty to warn about Holmes’ mental illness seems premature to say the least. Most problematic, though, is the claim about movie violence. Reasonable people can certainly object to the level of violence in movies, but Brown would seem an unlikely objector given that he voluntarily went to see it.

The good news from a legal standpoint is that Brown is unlikely to prevail. Courts generally have taken a dim view of efforts to extend legal liabilities to companies for premeditated crimes committed by non-employees. As well, the Supreme Court has long ruled that violence in movies and video games is protected expression under the First Amendment, raising a high hurdle to any successful suit of Warner Brothers.

We’ve seen such cases before. The closest example comes from Colorado and the legal fallout from a similar tragedy, the 1999 Columbine murders. At the time, the families of the 13 victims brought a $5 billion suit against 25 entertainment companies, including video game makers Sony and Nintendo and Time Warner (the parent company of Warner Brothers). The suit claimed that the companies’ violent video games, films, and websites had influenced the young gunmen, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, to shoot up their high school. As evidence, the plaintiffs cited the fact that the two killers were fans of violent video games like “Doom”; Eric Harris had even named his sawed-off shotgun after a character in the game. Then as now, however, there was little evidence that entertainment like video games led directly to murder. A Colorado federal court dismissed the case in 2002, ruling that the video-game makers could not have foreseen that their products would cause acts of violence like the Columbine shooting and as such were beyond the scope of legal liability.