Aurora Wrongful Death Suits Move Forward

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By Brett Snider, Esq. on April 22, 2013 11:07 AM

Victims and relatives of last summer's Aurora movie theater shooting can sue the theater's owner for liability and wrongful death, a federal judge has ruled. But not all claims are moving forward.

U.S. District Judge R. Brooke Jackson ruled that claims of negligence against Aurora theater owner Cinemark USA cannot proceed. Jackson's ruling affects 10 lawsuits filed in the wake of the massacre.

The idea that any theater could have been prepared for the actions of a lone gunman may seem ludicrous, but the case made by the plaintiffs has strong foundations in Colorado law.

Premises Liability

In general, property owners can be held responsible for accidents and injuries that occur on their premises. Customers of a business, known as invitees, are owed the highest degree of care by property owners. So under common law, Cinemark had a responsibility to take reasonable steps to ensure customer safety.

But in Colorado, the state's Premises Liability Act requires property owners to be responsible for dangers to invitees that they knew or should have known about.

Judge Jackson used this statute when considering that Cinemark could possibly have known that there were dangers which had presented themselves on the theater's property.

The plaintiffs, for their part, have alleged several dangerous conditions such as:

  • No security guards present,
  • No alarm on the theater's exit door (which the shooter used to enter the theater),
  • No one-way or automatic lock on the door, and
  • No emergency plan or employee training.

Since it can be argued that Cinemark should have known about those dangerous conditions and their relation to foreseeable criminal activity, Judge Jackson ruled that the plaintiffs' claim for premises liability could move forward.

Wrongful Death

Plaintiffs have also sued Cinemark for wrongful death, which is possible when the death of a person is caused by the negligence or misconduct of another party.

In this case, Judge Jackson ruled that although plaintiffs could not use their theory of negligence to sue for wrongful death, they could still sue on a premises liability theory.

If Cinemark loses to plaintiffs in a wrongful death suit, they could potentially face millions of dollars in pecuniary damages.

Why They Can't Sue for Negligence

The plaintiffs, however, cannot sue Cinemark under a theory of negligence, Judge Jackson ruled. That's because Section 2 of Colorado's Premises Liability Act prohibits plaintiffs from making a negligence claim in addition to a premises liability claim when the injury in both claims is caused by and on an owner's property.

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