Can Suspects of Mass Shootings Be Sued for Wrongful Death?

On the weekend of August 3, our nation experienced another horrific set of mass shootings where 31 people were killed across two states: Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas.  

The latest reports: 

El Paso, Texas:

A gunman shot and killed at least 22 people in a Walmart at El Paso Walmart on August 3. The suspect was identified as a 21-year old named Patrick Crusius. He was charged with capital murder and investigators are also weighing in on the additional charge of a hate crime and possibly federal firearm charges, which can lead to the death penalty.

News outlets reported that authorities found white nationalist documents that were believed to be written by the suspect. The four-page document was posted online and expressed white nationalist and racist views. Furthermore, authorities said that the document was “nexus to a protentional hate crime.”  

Dayton, Ohio:

Nine people were killed in a shooting in the Oregon District of Dayton, Ohio. The suspected shooter, Connor Betts, was killed but authorities had yet to officially announce who shot him. In a news conference, authorities expressed that they were “not close enough” to finding a motive. Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl admitted that they had not yet gone through all the evidence. Some of the evidence includes a Twitter account that appears to have belonged to the shooter, where Betts retweeted “extreme left-wing and anti-police posts, as well as tweets supporting Antifa, or anti-fascist, protesters.”

The aftermath of mass shootings tends to cause years if not eternal pain for loved ones and family members left behind. Following the deadly mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, two teenagers who survived the horrific event committed suicide. One parent who had a child killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting committed suicide that same week.

Based on their history, suspected shooters of these mass shootings usually commit suicide or get killed by the police. This type of outcome makes it impossible for victims’ friends, loved ones and relatives to find any kind of peace. Some survivors and relatives of those left behind have chosen to sue the people and companies they think may have had some responsibility in putting guns in the hands of these shooters. Earlier this year, the Associated Press (AP) reported that Connecticut Supreme Court ruled “gun-maker Remington can be sued over how it marketed the rifle used to kill 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.”

Nikolas Cruz, the man who confessed to murdering 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is a beneficiary in a MetLife life insurance policy and is entitled to half of a death benefit valued at $864,929.17. Cruz will inherit money from an insurance policy for his late mother, Lynda Cruz, who died of pneumonia on November 2017. The inheritance will be shared between Nikolas and his half-brother.

“The victims’ families’ lawyers are probably going to move to freeze those assets,” Broward County Public Defender Howard Finkelstein told the Washington Post in an interview. “Because of their significant trauma and awful loss, they’re entitled under the law to receive monetary damages. So if they freeze those assets, then he doesn’t have access to them.”

Although victims can sue suspected mass shooters, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) makes it impossible for gun manufacturers to be sued when shooters use their guns to commit the mass shootings. The Connecticut Supreme Court ruling that stated gun-maker Remington could be sued is a peculiar case that involved the company’s marketing tactics.    

“The plaintiffs include a survivor and relatives of nine people killed in the massacre [Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012]. They argue the AR-15-style rifle used by shooter Adam Lanza is too dangerous for the public and Remington glorified the weapon in marketing it to young people,” an NBC News article stated.

The short response to whether victims can sue suspected shooters of mass shootings is yes but the long answer is quite complex. Despite obvious evidence placed against them, it takes years in court for suspected mass shooters to be convicted. Once they are convicted, victims and relatives of those who lost their lives are too emotionally drained to pursue wrongful death lawsuits, and quite honestly, these shooters don’t tend to have any financial assets to go after.