BY: Matthew Turner | IN: Personal Injury
On December 9, 2021, a civil action seeking damages from the Oxford School District was filed on behalf of a wounded student and her sister. This is the first lawsuit—one of several anticipated cases—against the district following the November 30, 2021 shooting spree by Ethan Crumbly at Oxford High School.
Besides the Oxford School District, the suit also names Superintendent Timothy Throne, Principal Steven Wolf, Dean of Students Ryan Moore, and unnamed school counselors and teachers.
In the days since the tragedy, details have surfaced that certain school staff received troubling information about Ethan and witnessed several warning signs regarding his behavior shortly before the shootings. These details have prompted questions about why the school personnel did not contact the police-school liaison officer and why Ethan was not immediately removed from the classroom and school grounds the morning before the shooting spree began.
The federal lawsuit includes multiple claims, including allegations that the district violated students’ 14th Amendment right to be free from danger created or increased by the defendants. In Michigan, personal injury and wrongful death laws grant immunity from civil liability to government agencies and employees, including school districts and their officials; however, the defendants may still be held liable for gross negligence if the plaintiffs could provide the defendants’ conduct was reckless as to show a substantial disregard of concern for resulting injuries. By filing the lawsuit in federal court, the district and school officials named in the suit cannot raise a governmental immunity defense.
Although Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald brought criminal charges against Ethan Crumbly and his parents, only civil actions by those affected by the tragedy can hold accountable and bring to justice the district, teachers, and administrators who allegedly failed to prevent the shootings.
Because the Oxford School District declined Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s offer to conduct an independent investigation and review of the school shooting. Without such an investigation, only a civil lawsuit will bring all of the facts to light and hopefully prevent another tragedy like this in our schools.
Michigan law makes it difficult—but by no means impossible—for students and families to pursue damages in cases like this. Despite the challenging circumstances, survivors of the shooting should not be deterred from seeking answers, pursuing justice, and doing the right thing for the community.
Similar lawsuits have been filed in other states following mass shootings with mixed results. A Florida school district recently agreed to pay $25 million to the families of 52 people impacted by the 2018 Marjorie Stone Douglas High School tragedy. But in 2018, a Connecticut judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by families of children killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, finding governmental immunity shielded the school district from liability.
While money will never restore the lives lost or heal the wounds these students and their families have suffered, the civil justice system provides their sole recourse. Forcing defendants to pay substantial financial compensation to victims, survivors, and their families is the only way to obtain justice and promote meaningful change.
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Matthew Turner is a shareholder with Sommers Schwartz, and focuses his practice on medical malpractice, legal malpractice, ERISA, and class action matters.