Let the Litigation Begin
Let the Litigation Begin
Columbine Massacre Lawsuits
By: Dave Cullen
Date: May 28, 1999
Source: Salon. "Let the Litigation Begin." 〈http://www.salon.com/news/feature/1999/05/28/families〉 (accessed January 10, 2006).
About the Author: Dave Cullen is a Denver-based author and journalist who writes for Salon.com and the New York Times. His account of the Columbine massacres—A Lasting Impression on the World: The Definitive Account of Columbine and its Aftermath—will be published in 2007.
On Tuesday, April 20, 1999, teenage students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went on a shooting rampage at Columbine High School, near Denver. Armed with sawn-off shotguns, a semiautomatic pistol, and an array of pipe bombs, they began their spree at 11:20 a.m. During the next 45 minutes they shot and killed twelve students and a teacher and wounded 34 others before turning the guns on themselves. The death toll would surely have been higher had a 20-pound propane bomb in the cafeteria detonated.
The Columbine massacre became the most closely followed story of the decade. Yet morbid fascination gave way to searching questions. As details of Harris's and Klebold's fixation with violent video games like Doom, heavy metal music, and bloody films like Natural Born Killers emerged, the role of such cultural influences in American society were examined. Whether white supremacist views (the attack occurred on the hundred and tenth anniversary of Hitler's birth) fueled their rampage is unknown; they did, however, target students with religious beliefs.
With Harris and Klebold dead, soul-searching gave way to questions of greater responsibility. Was anyone else responsible for the Columbine massacre? Were the boys' parents at fault? Could the school have protected its students from such an attack? Should the police, who knew of the teens' violent website, threats against other students, and arrest records, have intervened before the massacre? Were the weapons manufacturers to blame?
In the years following the massacre these questions were to be argued in courts across America. But the parents of Isaiah Shoels, the only African-American victim of Harris and Klebold, filed the first law-suit—against the killers'parents—just five weeks after their son's death, beginning a period of lengthy litigation.
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The Shoels's case reached court in November 2000. By then they had been joined by twelve other families of the dead or injured. The core of their case was that Harris's and Klebold's families had "breached their duty of care" by allowing their sons to amass a cache of illegal weapons. Their lawsuit also claimed that Harris had planned the attack for 14 months and that his family should have been aware of this. The families rejected these accusations, but settled the suit for $1.6 million raised through homeowner insurance policies. This money was eventually divided between thirty-one families. An additional $900,000 came from Mark Manes, who sold guns to the pair.
In July 2004, however, the Shoels were back in court, this time before the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. They claimed that their family had accepted the deal in error, because of a mistake at their lawyer's office. The court ruled that the Shoels could not back out of the settlement they'd reached with the Harris and Klebold families.
Lawsuits accusing Columbine High School of failing its duty of care were dismissed, as were suits that alleged that a Denver police officer accidentally killed one of the victims, and another filed against eleven video game manufacturers and two film studios. A case brought against the makers of Solvay, an antidepressant used by Eric Harris, was settled out of court in April 2003, when the drug company agreed to make a $10,000 donation to the American Cancer Society.
Commenting on litigation spawned by the tragedy, Christian Science Monitor writer Jeff Kass mused: "Converting grief into legalese is something of an American trademark from plane crashes to SUV rollovers, the courts are a popular venue to help pinpoint blame and act as an emotional salve for those affected by tragedy." He also quoted Richard Lieberman, a Los Angeles-based psychologist and member of the National Association of School Psychologists National Emergency Assistance Team, who said that litigation was a double-edged sword. It keeps "people looking backward … [when] the key to healing is moving forward,"; but Kass acknowledged that "lawsuits can bring order to chaos, and change laws for the better."
Despite all this legal action, however, little—other than the relatively small settlement with the Harris and Klebold families—was achieved. Contributing to a collection of essays, Suing the Gun Industry: A Battle at the Crossroads of Gun Control and Mass Torts, Howard M. Erichson suggests that more useful litigation would have pressed for "trigger locks to prevent accidental shootings and for smart gun technology to prevent unauthorized use by nonowners."
Yet the Columbine killings did reawaken a debate about America's gun control laws, and the massacre proved an important cultural touchpoint, influencing both Gus Van Sant's 2003 film Elephant and Douglas Coupland's novel, Hey Nostradamus!
Perhaps the best-known and most controversial work inspired by the tragedy was the 2002 polemic Bowling for Columbine directed by Michael Moore, which argued that American culture is innately violent. The film won an Academy Award for best documentary in 2003, but did little to change America's gun laws and, ironically, made Moore himself the target of yet more litigation.
Christian Science Monitor. "Columbine Seeks Slosure—Out of Court." 〈http://www.csmonitor.com/2001/1129/p2s1-usju.html〉 (Jan 10, 2006).