#04: Civil Litigation–Campus Shootings

Table of Contents:

Civil Litigation –Campus Shootings

Burden Of Proof & Weight Of The Evidence

The Steven E. Jones civil case—Northern Arizona University—October 9, 2015

Civil Cases Following US Mass Shootings

Gun Industry Immunity from Mass Shooting Claims

The Columbine School Civil Case

The Sandy Hook School Civil Case

School Shooters Database and Assessment

Conclusions From Civil Litigation in Gun Violence Cases

Civil Litigation–Campus Shootings

The stark difference between criminal and civil litigation in America is neither novel nor hard to explain, because the essentials are embedded in the Bill of Rights. Civil litigation is a Seventh Amendment constitutional right. It codifies the right to a jury trial in certain civil cases and inhibits courts from overturning a jury’s findings of fact. Criminal litigation is covered in the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments. Collectively, they inhibit prosecutors regarding search and seizure warrants, custodial interrogations, self-incrimination, double jeopardy, and the right to counsel.

Criminal cases also differ in the source of law governing both substance and procedure. Criminal cases are statutorily brought, tried, and won or lost on what legislatures have decided. Civil cases are filed under common-law principles and process. In homicide cases, the criminal codes define the essential terms, like mens rea, intent, guilt, innocence, enforcement, and prison terms. In wrongful death civil actions, the common law of negligence, civil verdicts, financial assessment, and debtor’s rights apply.

Homicide comes in two distinctive forms—murder and manslaughter. Murder is the unlawful killing of another human without justification or valid excuse. The most serious form, killing with malice aforethought, is first-degree murder.

Manslaughter also comes in two forms—voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary manslaughter is charged when the defendant intended to kill or seriously harm, but acted in the moment under circumstances that could cause a reasonable person to become emotionally or mentally disturbed. Voluntary manslaughter is also charged when the defendant claims to have been provoked to commit homicide. Some courts apply this standard when the provocation induces rage or anger in the defendant. Involuntary manslaughter is killing a human without intent of doing so, either expressed or implied. It is distinguished from voluntary manslaughter by the absence of intent.

Burden Of Proof & Weight Of The Evidence

It is important to remember two essential differences between the government a shooter and a victim suing him. The criminal case is about justice. The civil case is about compensation. Criminal defendants are routinely required to pay restitution in shooting cases. Civil defendants have insurance companies that pay compensation to the victims of gun violence.

In criminal cases, the prosecution must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. In civil cases, plaintiffs have to prove their case by a mere preponderance of the evidence. The former is extremely difficult. The latter relatively easy. Preponderance is the lowest standard of proof for good reason. Plaintiffs satisfy their burden of proof by offering evidence that demonstrates their compensation claims have a greater than 50 percent chance to be true. Beyond a reasonable doubt is 100 percent of criminal guilt.

In mass shooting criminal cases, victims wait years for prosecutions to go to trial and render justice. In civil cases arising out of mass shootings, the civil cases are routinely settled out of court and often for whatever policy limits are available. Most jurors are sympathetic to shooting victims in civil cases but skeptical, because of the much higher proof standard in criminal self-defense shooting cases. Knowing the consequences are prison in the criminal case but only money in the civil case explains the common difference in outcomes.

Perhaps the most notorious case in America defining the difference between criminal and civil law is the O.J. Simpson case. His criminal jury acquitted him. His civil jury found him liable. Both cases were litigated in Los Angeles County, with local citizens on both juries. His criminal jury set him free. His civil jury awarded his victims compensatory and punitive damages totaling $33.5 million.[1]

The Steven E. Jones civil case—Northern Arizona University—October 9, 2015

In their civil case, the plaintiffs alleged fourteen facts to support their case. The complaint asserts facts based in part on the police investigation:[2]

            1.    At approximately 1:20 a.m. on October 9, 2015, witnesses report that Steven Jones left the scene of an interaction near the Courtyard Apartments in Flagstaff, Arizona, near the Northern Arizona University (“NAU”) campus and the Mountain View residence hall on campus.

            2.    Steven Jones traveled approximately 150 feet from the site of the interaction to his parked car, retrieved a .40 caliber Glock 22 handgun with a tactical light from his glove box, chambered a round, and then returned approximately ninety-five feet back to the individuals with whom he had been interacting.

            3.    In addition to the tactical light, the .40 caliber Glock handgun had a fifteen-shot magazine and a “competition extender” that expanded the magazine capacity to seventeen rounds. Steven Jones had the magazine loaded with seventeen .40 caliber “hollow point” bullets. Jones also had sixty additional rounds of ammunition in the trunk of his car.

            4.    “Hollow point” bullets are designed to “expand” upon striking a target, which has the effect of decreasing penetration and disrupting more tissue as the projectile travels through the target.

            5.    After activating the tactical light on the Glock, which blinded some of the unarmed students in the group, Steven Jones, discharged an estimated ten rounds of the hollow-point ammunition in the area of the unarmed students. At least seven of these rounds struck several unarmed members of the group involved in the interaction.

            6.    No other member of the group in the area of the interaction, aside from Steven Jones, had a weapon. Steven Jones later admitted he knew none of the individuals with whom he had been interacting had a weapon.

            7.    Two bullets fired by Steven Jones struck Colin Brough, one in the right chest, and the other in the right clavicle area. The bullet that struck his chest went through the middle section of Colin’s right lung, then through the biggest vein in the human body (the inferior vena cava) and then through the aorta, the largest artery in the body.

            8.    Two other bullets fired by Steven Jones struck Nicholas Piring in the right upper arm and the left hip area, respectively.

            9.    One bullet fired by Steve Jones struck and went through Nicholas Prato’s neck.

          10.    Colin Brough died from his injuries. Nicholas Piring and Nicholas Prato suffered serious injuries and required extensive medical treatment, including surgical intervention. Nicholas Piring and Nicholas Prato continue to experience residual limitations from their shooting injuries.

The civil case was filed, served on the defendants, and quickly resolved out of court. To no one’s surprise, the Jones’s family insurance carrier stepped in quickly, negotiated fairly, and settled the case quietly, and confidentially.

The civil case against Steven Jones was metaphorically a leisurely stroll through a friendly courtroom. The proof against him in the tort case was self-evident—he admittedly shot one student and wounded two others—there is no such thing as “justification” in civil law. Even so, the civil case against his parents and their corporate business was more complicated. To prove the case against his parents, the plaintiffs asserted three theories of liability—all sounding in the common law of negligence. First, they alleged the parents and their corporate entity negligently entrusted the .40 caliber Glock handgun to Steven Jones. Second, they alleged the tort of negligent supervision and training. Third, they alleged an esoteric tort known as negligence per se.

For their negligent entrustment claim against Warren Jones and his company, Shooter’s Choice of Arizona, LLC, the plaintiffs alleged that they supplied Steven Jones with the .40 caliber Glock pistol and the seventeen-capacity magazine loaded with hollow-point bullets for his “use while at NAU.”[3] They said Warren Jones and his company knew or should have known that “Steven Jones was likely because of his youth, his immaturity, his propensity for outbursts, and his lack of respect for authority, to use the .40 caliber Glock 22, magazine and hollow-point bullets in a manner involving an unreasonable risk of physical harm to others. Warren Jones and/or Shooter’s Choice knew or should have known others would be endangered by its use. Steven Jones did in fact use the .40 caliber Glock 22, magazine and hollow-point bullets in an unreasonable manner and as result endangered and caused harm to Colin Brough, Nicholas Piring and Nicholas Prato.”[4]

The statutes and ordinances proscribed in the civil complaint were enacted for the protection and safety of the public and were designed to protect members of the public from the harm associated with discharging a firearm and/or assaulting, endangering, threatening and intimidating, interfering with or disrupting an educational institution, and/or creating a criminal nuisance.”[5]

All plaintiffs asked for punitive or exemplary damages against all defendants found to have acted with reckless indifference or with an evil hand guided by an evil mind.

Because this was a civil case, the plaintiffs took special care to define both Steven and Warren Jones in the larger context of guns and gun safety. To do this they detailed relevant background for both father and son.

“Steven Jones’s father Warren Jones is a gun owner, gun enthusiast, and claims to be a former certified firearms instructor. Warren Jones was also the sole member of Shooter’s Choice of Arizona, LLC, which appears to have been a firearm supply and/or firearm-training business he operated out of his home. . . . Warren Jones enrolled his son Steven Jones in firearm training beginning when Steven was age eight. When Steven was about fourteen or fifteen years old, Warren Jones began teaching Steven personal firearm defense ‘techniques.’ These ‘techniques’ included what Warren Jones described as a ‘standard tactical response for a deadly force encounter,’ and this tactical response includes the firing of two rounds in rapid succession at the center mass of a target. Some firearms instructors and/or law enforcement agencies refer to the firing of two rounds in rapid succession at the same target as a ‘double tap’ technique. Steven Jones stated that since age eight his father has trained him to aim for center mass and to use a ‘double-tap’ technique in which the shooter draws and fires two rounds at the same target in under a second. Warren Jones estimates that Steven completed between ten to twelve shooting competitions during his teenage years.”[6]

These allegations were not mere history or family focus. They mirrored the acts of Steven Jones on the night he killed Colin Brough and shot three other students. The narrative about Steven Jones tied his gun skills closely to his father training from age 8 to age 18..

“Steven Jones’ parents’ home schooled him from kindergarten to his senior year of high school. In August and September of 2015, Steve Jones was known to be immature for his age and to be prone to outbursts and/or to defy directions from authority figures. For example, a peer instructor at Northern Arizona University who taught a class to incoming freshmen students about adjusting to life on campus reported Steve Jones was disruptive and that she had to ask him to leave her class twice for being on his cell phone. This same peer instructor also observed that Steven Jones appeared unhappy at NAU and that he appeared to have difficulty making friends. Steven Jones’ Residence Hall Director . . . observed Steve Jones being disrespectful towards residence hall staff. Mr. Stokes also noted Steve Jones was the subject of several noise complaints during his short time at the NAU residence hall where he lived. Despite his immaturity, despite his propensity for outbursts, and despite his lack of respect for authority figures and others . . . Warren Jones provided Steven with the .40-caliber Glock 22 handgun with tactical light, and with the 17-capacity magazine and hollow-point ammunition, to take with him to NAU. Steven Jones had the .40 caliber Glock 22 in his glove box in his vehicle at the time he was involved in an interaction with members of the group in front of the Courtyard Apartments.”[7]

Because the civil case settled quickly and quietly, there was little media focus on the Jones family, their gun company, or their connection to the gun violence on the NAU campus. But there were other reports. The Arizona Republic ran a story on October 10, 2015, just one day after the NAU shooting, about Steven Jones. The reporter, Peter Corbett, found Steven to be “not unlike so many other 18-year-old college students.” But his headline, “Suspect Was Passionate About Guns,” likely generated a lot of conversation in the dorms and frat houses at NAU.[8] The article gave the first of many narratives about the NAU shooter.

“He is a smart kid, is a good musician and loves working on his car, a 2010 Ford Mustang, according to a Glendale high-school friend. What stands out in his social-media posts is an interest in firearms. In an Instagram selfie, Jones poses with a shotgun while wearing a patriotic tank top and hat. His one-word caption reads, ‘Merica.’ In another, he is holding a rifle and tells his followers, ‘It’s a full auto kinda day,’ a reference to an automatic weapon. Guns are ‘a passion of his,’ said Stephan Romanovsky, 19, who knows Jones from Glendale’s Mountain Ridge High School and played music with him. ‘Gun rights were super important to him,’ said Romanovsky, adding that Jones was a well-trained gun owner who went shooting with his father. . . He described Jones as productive, sober and levelheaded but added, ‘Steven was a bit of a hothead when it came to small, personal quibbles.’”

Civil Cases Following US Mass Shootings

Insurance coverage to pay civil victims in mass shooting cases was once rare. In times past, the infrequency of gun violence, especially on school campuses, made American insurance companies relatively unconcerned. But in the twenty-first century’s ever-increasing number of mass shooting incidents, and the civil liability that follows, is of great importance to victims and insurance companies.

In the fifty years before the 1966 University of Texas tower shooting, there were only twenty-five mass shootings in which four or more people were killed. Of the 220 mass shooting incidents that occurred from 2000 to 2016, nearly half, 107, took place in an education, retail, government, or military setting.[9]

Gun Industry Immunity from Mass Shooting Claims

The substantial increase in gun violence civil cases on school campuses generated new gun-industry favorable laws. Laws that limit claims from mass shootings by granting immunity to gun manufacturers, distributors, and dealers. In 2005, in response to a deluge of suits by cities and counties seeking to recover costs associated with gun violence, the US Congress enacted the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA). Its goal was to “ensure that manufacturers and sellers of firearms and ammunition would not be liable for the harm caused by those who criminally or unlawfully misuse firearm products. It requires dismissal of any civil liability action brought by any person against a manufacturer or seller of a qualified product . . . for damages . . . or other relief, resulting from the criminal or unlawful misuse of a qualified product.”[10]

The Columbine School Civil Case

Several civil suits were filed following the 2002 Columbine school massacre. “Victims’ families sued video-game makers and movie producers and distributors, alleging that violent movie and video games were the cause of the shootings. The U.S. District Court in Colorado held the perpetrators’ intentional violent acts were not foreseeable and were the superseding cause of the deaths [and] . . . under Colorado law, intangible thoughts, ideas, and expressive content contained in movies and video games are not ‘products’ as contemplated by the strict liability doctrine . . . [and] are protected under the First Amendment.”[11]

The Sandy Hook School Civil Case

Following the Sandy Hook School massacre, the victims’ families sued Bushmaster Firearms. They claimed damages from the manufacturer, distributor, and sellers of the assault rifle used by the gunman. The Connecticut Supreme Court upheld the dismissal of the plaintiffs’ negligent entrustment claims, finding that the plaintiffs failed to establish that the retail defendants had any reason to expect that the shooter’s mother, the direct purchaser of the rifle, was likely to use the rifle in a manner that would involve an unreasonable risk of physical harm. However, the court allowed the plaintiff’s claims against the manufacturer under the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act. Those claims were “novel arguments that the defendants marketed the rifle in an unethical, oppressive, immoral, and unscrupulous manner by extolling the militaristic and assaultive qualities of the rifle and reinforcing the image of the rifle as a combat weapon . . . for . . . waging war and killing human beings.”[12]

School Shooters Database and Assessment

School Shooters.Info is a national database that identifies and describes “perpetrators who intended to kill multiple victims in educational settings using firearms.”[13] They document scores of school shooting civil cases. And the page “Lists and explains the organizing concepts used on the site to distinguish different types of shooters and different types of attacks. Despite frequent references in the media to a ‘profile’ of school shooters, there is no one profile.”

The site is managed by Peter Langman, Ph.D. He is an expert on the psychology of school shooters and other perpetrators of mass violence. He conducts trainings on understanding the psychology of school shooters and identifying potential school shooters for professionals in mental health, education, and law enforcement.[14] His research organizes school shooters into one of three psychological types. (1) Psychopathic shooters are narcissistic, entitled, lacking in empathy, and sometimes sadistic. Some are abrasive and belligerent; others are charming and deceptive. (2) Psychotic shooters have either schizophrenia or schizotypal personality disorder, with a combination of psychotic symptoms (hallucinations, delusions, and disorganized thoughts/behavior), eccentric behavior and beliefs, and severely impaired social/emotional functioning. (3) Traumatized shooters grew up in chronically dysfunctional families characterized by parental substance abuse, domestic violence, physical abuse, sometimes sexual abuse, frequent relocations, and changing caregivers.

These categories do not apply to Steven Jones and are not matched to the NAU mass shooting case on October 9, 2015. The Jones case is not included in the database. There are over eighty school shootings at the elementary, secondary, and university level. The list covers civil and criminal litigation from 1976 to 2018 in several dozen states.

Another school shooting website is After the Shootings, the Lawsuits.[15] The site features an article by Michael D. Simpson for NEA Today in February 2000. It says, “All six of the fatal school shootings of the last two years have produced massive lawsuits by the victims’ families.” Mr. Simpson reports the families of students killed are suing “School boards, principals, teachers, parents, students, gun makers, and even Hollywood.”[16] In some cases, where the shooters survived, they are also named as defendants in civil cases. Gun makers are liable, the families argue, because they failed to equip the guns with safety locks. Schools are liable because officials failed to act after the shooters wrote violent writings in class or on social media. Parents are liable because they failed to exercise parental control and negligently gave shooters weapons. In a West Paducah, Kentucky, case, the parents sued school board members, teachers, and principals, because the fourteen-year-old shooter had written two violent stories in school about killing “preppies.” Another case was filed for more than $100 million in damages from twenty-five media and entertainment companies for producing the violent movies and video games that allegedly taught and incited the perpetrator to kill.

“Courts in Illinois, Georgia, New York, and California have allowed victims of gun violence to sue the gun industry. Borrowing a tactic from the tobacco litigation, 27 municipalities also have filed 17 lawsuits against gun makers. Claims against video game and moviemakers may also succeed. A Louisiana court last year allowed a shooting victim to sue the producers of the movie Natural Born Killers.”[17]

America’s sixth-largest school district has received at least 103 notices of pending legal claims related to its role in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.[18] “It remains unclear just how much exposure the 271,000-student Broward County Public Schools may have. Under Florida law, state agencies such as school districts have partial immunity from such claims, with a cap of $300,000 in potential damages for incidents involving multiple victims.”[19]

Conclusions From Civil Litigation in Gun Violence Cases

Lawyers, courts, schools, governments, victims, teachers, and parents should do everything they can to prevent school shootings and ensure that schools are safe for students, teachers, and staff. School shootings will continue to produce civil litigation if students have access to guns on campus. Spending money for school security products has not made schools safer. Money should be spent by investing in safe, healthy, and supportive schools for all students. Gun violence on campus will result in civil litigation if campus shooters are uncivil. It’s that simple.

[1]. Richard Price, Jonathan T. Lovitt and Gale Holland. “Fight Over Money May Follow Court Battle” USA TODAY, 01/28/97.

[2]. In the Superior Court of the State of Arizona, in and for the County of Coconino, Case No. CV2017-00310, Complaint, pages 2-4.

[3]. In the Superior Court of the State of Arizona, in and for the County of Coconino, Case No. CV2017-00310, Complaint, pages 9-10.

[4]. Ibid.

[5]. Ibid. at 11-12.

[6]. Ibid. at 4-5.

[7]. Ibid. at 4-7.

[8]. Peter Corbett, “Suspect Was Passionate About Guns, High-School Friend Says.” The Arizona Republic, October 10, 2015, Saturday, Final Chaser Edition.

[9]. Michael Steinage. Liability for Mass Shootings: Are We at a Turning Point? American Bar Association. Tort Trial & Insurance Practice Section. 27th Annual TIPS Insurance Coverage Litigation Committee Midyear Program. https://www.americanbar.org/groups/tort_trial_insurance_practice/publications/the_brief/2019-20/winter/liability-mass-shootings-are-we-a-turning-point/.

[10]. Ibid. See 15 U.S.C. § 7903(5)(A).

[11]. Sanders v. Acclaim Entm’t, Inc., 188 F. Supp. 2d 1264 (D. Colo. 2002).

[12]. Soto v. Bushmaster, 331 Conn. 53, 202 A.3d 262 (2019).

[13]. https://schoolshooters.info/about-the-site.

[14]. https://schoolshooters.info/about-dr-langman.

[15]. http://www.umich.edu/~psycours/561/simpson.htm.

[16]. Ibid.

[17]. Ibid.

[18]. https://www.edweek.org/ew/projects/a-broken-trust/parkland-lawsuits-blame-district.html.

[19]. Ibid.

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