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Two years ago in South Carolina, on September 28, 2016, Jesse Osborne shot and killed his father. He then went to nearby Townville Elementary School where he shot three students and one teacher. One student died from excessive bleeding and cardiac arrest. Everyone else survived, but at what price?
Some of the survivors have suicidal thoughts. One had daily bouts with diarrhea, and once finally able to return to school, spiraled back down the recovery path after an unannounced intruder drill. Numerous children that weren't shot were still injured, not physically, but mentally. But is trauma alone enough for a negligence claim?
What Sort of Duty Is Owed to Students?
The parents of five surviving children from the Townville school shooting filed personal injury negligence lawsuits against Anderson School District 4 and the Anderson County Sheriff's Office, claiming the defendants are responsible for their children's post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The lawsuit claims that the school district had a duty to train or ensure the training of its employees "to recognize and properly deal with an active-shooter situation on campus and the proper administration of life-saving first aid to injured students." It also alleges that the Sheriff's Office failed to perform a security assessment on the school to highlight strengths and weaknesses on the campus, which could have allowed officials "to develop a course of action" to address any weaknesses.
Can Trauma Alone Lead to a Successful Claim?
In order for these plaintiffs to prevail, they will need to provide a connection between the breach of duty and the shooter's decision to open fire at the school. These types of lawsuits are rarely, if ever, successful because of the difficulty in establishing a causal connection between the school's actions, or in this case, inactions, and the shooter's decision to shoot. Specifically, plaintiffs will need to prove that, had the district trained employees better, and had the Sheriff's Office created a better security protocol, the shooting would have never happened. That is very difficult to prove.
Plaintiffs will also need to prove that the injuries sustained were reasonably foreseeable, given the "inaction" of the district and the Sheriff's Office. If the causal connection can be proven, this may be easier to prove. But it wouldn't be a "slam dunk" by any means. Even if the defendants fulfilled their duties, and the shooter shot, would the students not have developed PTSD? And if they did, would that have been foreseeable? Even in the infamous Columbine shootings, this couldn't be proven. Stoneman Douglass shooting survivors suffering from PTSD have filed a Civil Rights lawsuit, though not a negligence lawsuit. That case is still making its way through the courts. Perhaps plaintiffs in the Townville case will find some legal precedent there.
If you or someone you love is the survivor of a school shooting, and suffering from PTSD, contact a local personal injury attorney. The tides are turning with each school shooting. What once wasn't foreseeable may unfortunately, soon be. It may be only a matter of time before such claims are successful.