Families of Parkland Victims File 20 Lawsuits Alleging Negligence

by | April 11, 2019 AT 4:00 PM

By David J. Neal and Jay Weaver

Parents of students killed and injured in the 2018 mass murder at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have filed more than 20 lawsuits, alleging negligence by the Broward Sheriff's Office, the Broward County School Board and Henderson Behavorial Health and "willful and wanton negligence" against former BSO school resource officer Scot Peterson and campus monitor Andrew Medina.

A phalanx of lawyers representing the victims' families said Wednesday that they were forced to sue after BSO and the School Board reneged on their initial commitment to help resolve financial claims for their losses. The teams of attorneys and families decided to go to court after learning that the School Board hired lobbyists in Tallahassee to thwart their efforts to collect damages in a claims bill before the Florida Legislature.

Lawyers would not disclose the exact amount sought by the parents.

A Broward County Public Schools spokesperson said BCPS doesn't comment on pending lawsuits. BSO said the same in a Wednesday afternoon email.

Peterson's attorney, Joseph DiRuzzo, said, "We are confident that any lawsuit related to the Parkland shooting lacks merit; we will vigorously contest the factual and legal assertions made therein."

Attorney Todd Michaels, who is representing the family of deceased teacher Scott Beigel, said the BSO and School Board initially said they wanted "to help bring justice."

"What we've learned in the past 14 months is that they have no intention to help," Michaels said at a news conference at the Fort Lauderdale law firm of Kelley/Uustal. "They hired a law firm to lobby behind the scenes against the interests of the victims."

Broward County Public Schools Chief Public Information Officer Kathy Koch disagreed with that. While having no comment on the substance of the lawsuit, Koch said BCPS brought in lobbying law firm GrayRobinson to help with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Victims' Compensation Fund. She claims neither BCPS or GrayRobinson worked against the fund.

"In the early Fall 2018, representatives of BCPS met with several of the plaintiffs' attorneys to discuss the concept of a victim's compensation fund and hired GrayRobinson to write the first draft of the legislation," Koch wrote. "The first public conversation about the concept was in December 2018 at the joint delegation meeting between the Broward Legislative Delegation and the Broward County School Board,to which BCPS invited three family members of victims to speak about the concept and the School Board expressed its support. The School Board placed this item on its legislative platform in February for the 2019 Legislative Session."

Mitch Dworet, whose son Nicholas was killed and son Alexander survived being shot, said his life and family will never be whole again.

"He was injured, he saw children killed and he lost his brother," Dworet said of his son Alexander. "This is a life sentence for me, every day, for 14 months. I want accountability ... there were failures. ... If you have children, you cannot imagine the life that I lead now."

Lisa Olson, whose son William was injured in the school shooting, said her family also wants accountability.

"My son couldn't go to school today," she said, "and we have many days like that now."

The suits say the School Board should have known how dangerous confessed shooter Nikolas Cruz was, and failed in 14 different ways to prepare accordingly.

BSO is accused of negligence because, the suit argues, deputies didn't follow school active-shooter policy, which the suit says states "the officers' first priority is to stop the killing. Officers must go directly to the sounds of the gunfire and attempt to neutralize the attacker."

The individual officer blamed for much of that inaction, both by then-Broward Sheriff Scott Israel last year and by the lawsuit, is Peterson.

Peterson is accused of negligence for "not immediately entering or attempting to enter the high school for the purpose of locating and neutralizing Nikolas Cruz" as well as ordering "via radio transmission a lockdown of the school which precluded students from leaving (while he failed to enter as required by procedure), while almost simultaneously, ordering other responding officers to not even approach the site of the shooting, much less enter as established BSO policy required, thus prolonging the killing spree that continued inside."

Similar accusations were made against Medina. The suit says though he saw Cruz on campus, radioed a security guard to "be careful" of Cruz and heard shots, he set the table for the tragedy when he "breached his duty" and "willfully disregarded school policies."

"Medina did not follow one of the longstanding requirements upon which students, faculty and staff are trained to call a "Code Red" when there is suspicious activity, including hearing gun-shots fired," the suit says. "Medina owed a duty to all the students, faculty, and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas ... to monitor the campus for dangerous and unusual activity, to alert the appropriate authorities when a dangerous or unusual activity occurs, and to call a "Code Red" alarm when appropriate."

Henderson treated Cruz as a behavioral healthcare patient in several programs since 2009. The suit claims Henderson should have warned the school board and the Douglas High community that Cruz was a danger and is partially at fault for Cruz being "improperly transferred to MSDHS -- a school that he could not handle and for which he was not suitable."

Also, the suit claims, "Throughout Henderson's provision of behavioral health services to Cruz, Henderson failed to effectively treat Cruz for depression and, in fact, provided treatment to Cruz which exacerbated and fueled his depression" which fueled violent actions, such as the mass shooting.

(c)2019 Miami Herald