Judge dismisses all but one Columbine lawsuit
DENVER, Colorado (Reuters) -- A federal judge ruling on the 1999 Columbine High School massacre dismissed Tuesday all lawsuits lodged against a Colorado school district, but let stand a suit against police brought by the family of a teacher who bled to death while awaiting rescue.
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Lewis Babcock said Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, "were the predominant if not the sole cause" for the April 20, 1999, murders of 12 students and a teacher.
The massacre shocked the world and caused school districts around the United States to reassess security and politicians to rethink gun laws.
"The magnitude of Eric Harris' and Dylan Klebold's rampage of murder and mayhem is unparalleled in our historic system of public education. The agony of so many is heart-rending and gut wrenching," U.S. District Judge Lewis Babcock said in his opinion.
But the judge said the lawsuits against the Jefferson County School District and all but one against the Jefferson County Sheriff's office claiming negligence could not stand because the two gunmen were responsible for the massacre. The sheriff's office and the school district argued the cases should be dismissed under the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act.
All the complaints against the school district were dropped. "The district is pleased with the ruling, but there is no victory in regard to this tragedy," the school district said in a statement. "Out hearts go out to the families affected by this tragedy."
However, the judge did not dismiss one case against the sheriff's office filed by the family of teacher Dave Sanders, who bled to death while awaiting rescue. The family claimed police gave "repeated false assurances that help would be there in 10 minutes" to teachers over the telephone who were rendering aid to the stricken teacher.
The judge agreed, saying police prevented paramedics from going to Sanders' aid, even though they knew his location, that he was in serious condition and that Klebold and Harris were already dead hours before the SWAT team finally reached Sanders. The gunmen killed themselves.
"By 4 p.m., Dave Sanders' heretofore survivable wounds had become fatal and he died," the judge said. "I do conclude that at some point during the afternoon, the (police) command defendants gained the time to reflect and deliberate on their decisions. At that point, (they) demonstrated a deliberate indifference towards Dave Sanders' plight shocking to the conscience of this federal court," the judge said.
Peter Grenier, attorney for the Sanders family, said he spoke with the teacher's daughter, Angela.
"The ruling was bittersweet for her because law enforcement may have legal responsibility for her dad's death, but we're very pleased we can show his death was avoidable," Grenier said.
The sheriff's office said it was pleased eight of the nine lawsuits were dismissed and that the county attorney was reviewing whether to appeal the ruling on Sanders.
An attorney who represented the parents of seven students who died in the attack said he was disappointed by the judge's dismissal of their cases and said he expected his clients would appeal. Even the judge said he expected his decisions would be appealed.
"My people were counting on the court shedding some light on what happened," attorney James Rouse said. Parents had hoped a public court hearing would give them more details on what the police did that day when panic surrounded the school.
Parents were furious, claiming sheriff's deputies stayed outside instead of entering the school to save the students.
"I guess the Columbine massacre will go down in history as a wonderful 'live fire' training exercise in officer safety," Dale Todd whose son, Evan, was wounded in the school library said. "Eight hundred officers and not one of them got a scratch," an angry Todd added.
The family of Daniel Rohrbough alleged the 15-year-old may have been shot outside the school building by a police officer by mistake, something police have strongly denied. But the judge dismissed the claim because the family did not identify which officer could have fired the fatal shot.
Lawsuits against the parents of the two gunmen and the three friends who helped them get their weapons were settled for around $3 million on the eve of the second anniversary of the shooting.
The judge's order comes days after three teens in Massachusetts were arrested for planning a similar type of attack on their school.
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