The Sheriff’s Office in Broward County, Florida, and Deputy Sheriff Scot Peterson can be held responsible for the failure of Peterson to enter a high school while gunman Nikolas Cruz was killing seventeen people earlier this month, according to legal experts following the case. While members of law enforcement are typically immune to legal claims regarding failure to act, the department and sheriff in this particular case simply do not qualify for immunity, because Peterson was specifically assigned to protect Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Timothy Lytton, a law professor at Georgia State University who has written a book on legal issues involving guns, said, “The children and teachers justifiably relied on him and his unique level of knowledge to protect them.” To succeed, any lawsuit over Peterson’s conduct would need to show that if he had intervened, many of the lost lives would have been saved.
Peterson’s attorney Joseph DiRuzzo said that his client had acted appropriately based on his belief that gunshots were coming from outside of the school. Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel has said that Peterson should have entered the school and killed the shooter, however. In a news conference following the tragedy, Israel stated that Peterson “clearly” knew there was a shooter inside, something that Israel said made him “sick to my stomach.”
President Trump even called Peterson a coward. “When it came time to get in there or do something, he didn’t have the courage,” Trump said.
Lytton said Israel’s statements alone “provide a strong basis on which to go forward with a lawsuit.” Plaintiffs and their lawyers would argue the sheriff’s assessment demonstrates Peterson, 54, had acted negligently.
The Deputy Sheriff had been assigned to Stoneman Douglas High School as an armed school resource officer since 2009. He resigned amid the controversy rather than face suspension after an internal investigation ensued. Peterson had served with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office since 1985.
Andrew McClurg, a law professor at the University of Memphis who has expertise in gun laws, said Peterson’s position as a school resource officer meant he owed a duty to students and staff. Guidelines provided by the Broward Sheriff’s Office for active shooter situations would further support liability claims, said John Berry, a Virginia attorney who often defends members of law enforcement. Berry added that he was sure any lawsuits that follow will be quickly settled, given strong public sympathy for the victims.
The Sheriff’s Office’s standard procedures, revised in March 2016, allow for a sole deputy to confront an active shooter to preserve life without waiting for backup or seeking a supervisor’s approval in advance. Similar procedures have been adopted by U.S. police departments in response to active shooters, indicated Pete Blair, executive director of the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State University. This is because so many lives are typically lost immediately following the gunman’s decision to open fire.
“Given the politics of this case, I would not want to be a legislator opposed to doling out more money for the victims,” Andrew McClurg, a law professor with the University of Memphis, said. Therefore, pressure from the public may mean maximum payouts for those who seek litigation.