Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Sep 26, 2012

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On July 19th, 2012 James Holmes walked into an Aurora, Colorado movie theater during the premier of Dark Knight Rises and opened fire.  When he stopped shooting he had taken 12 lives, wounded 58 more, and sent shockwaves across the country.  While no amount of money can undo the horror the gunman caused, the first of what promises to be many lawsuits have been filed against the Century Aurora 16 seeking financial compensation for the theater’s contribution to the harm.

Dark Knight Shooting Lawsuits Allege Lax Theater Security

Three victims have filed civil lawsuits against the theater for failure to provide adequate security on the night of the shooting, and failure to appropriately respond to the attacks. Claiming that “Readily available security procedures, security equipment and security personnel would likely have prevented or deterred the gunman from accomplishing his planned assault on the theater’s patrons,” the lawsuits allege a pattern of security failures that allowed the lone gunman to kill and injure as many people as he did. 

The complaints, detailed here, point out that there was no security guard on duty, and the exterior door that the shooter exited and propped open did not have an alarm to prevent his actions.  The victims claim that “Any person who wished to make a surreptitious and unauthorized entry into the theater could easily determine that the lack of security personnel and lack of any alarm on the door at the right, front by the screen of (the) auditorium would allow them to leave the theater, and re-enter without fear of being discovered, interfered with, monitored or stopped.”

While the victims did not release the precise amount of money they sought, the suit does indicate the amount is greater than $750,000.  The attorney for the victims also indicated that other attorneys are still preparing lawsuits against the theater.

Shooting Victims Accuse the Theater of Negligence

These lawsuits do not allege any malicious wrongdoing – the blame for the atrocities falls squarely on the shoulders of James Holmes.  Rather, the victims here claim that the theater’s negligence contributed to the injuries suffered, and it seems they have a sound legal case.  Movie theaters, like any business, owe a duty to patrons to provide measures of protection from harm while on business property.   While movie theaters may not be expected to plan for such a drastic and unforeseen event, the victims claim that the theater has a history of assaults, robberies, and at least one gang related shooting that should have encouraged hightened security, particularly considering the number of people on the property.  In fact, the theater typically staffs a security guard on Friday and Saturday nights to prevent violence threatening the safety of patrons. 

Further, the plaintiffs point out that the gunman was able to prop open an emergency exit, return to the movie fully armed, and fire into the crowd for several minutes uninterrupted by either an alarm or movie theater personnel.  During that time the movie continued playing and the lights remained dim or turned off, which contributed to the injuries suffered.  Finally, the lawsuits claim that movie theater employees allegedly failed to aid any evacuation efforts or assist the injured after the gunman fled the scene.  All of these actions allegedly contributed to the harm caused by the gunman, and make the theater liable for the victims’ injuries.

Next Steps in the Dark Knight Lawsuits

Viewing the situation in hindsight, it is easy to see how the theater could have and possibly should have taken steps to prevent or minimize the damage caused.  Of course, in the heat of the moment it is difficult to expect an untrained movie theater employee to do anything more than call the police, which they no doubt did.  The theater company has not issued a response to the suit, but it is possible the defense argues that such a severe and uncommon event is impossible to plan for and it is unreasonable to expect the employees to prevent or even minimize the damage caused.

Ultimately, these lawsuits and the ones that come later will likely settle without a trial.  The theater will probably admit to some failures, most notably not posting security and not placing an alarm on the door the gunman propped open for himself to re-enter.  The victims and their families will receive some level of compensation for their loss, and the theater, and theaters across the country, will take action to increase security and implement disaster procedures.

Although lawsuits after a tragedy will not bring back what was lost, they do serve a purpose.  First, and most importantly, they provide some level of compensation to injured victims.  Second, they can benefit everyone by initiating changes that can prevent tragedies in the future.  Important policies in medical practice, workplace and public safety, and school security have their genesis in legal action.  The threat of costly litigation can often persuade companies to increase their safety measures, and these particular lawsuits have potential to drive security changes at movies across America.