A Michigan judge on Friday dismissed a school district and its employees as defendants in two wrongful death lawsuits stemming from a deadly 2021 mass shooting by a 15-year-old student armed with a gun his parents had bought him for Christmas.
Oxford Community Schools and its staff are shielded from such civil litigation by state law under the doctrine of governmental immunity, Oakland County Circuit Judge Mary Ellen Brennan ruled in one nine-page opinion.
Remaining as defendants in the civil lawsuits are the gunman, Ethan Crumbley, who has since pleaded guilty to murder charges, and his parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley, who have been charged with involuntary manslaughter in the shooting.
Armed with a semi-automatic pistol, Crumbley opened fire at Oxford High School, north of Detroit, on Nov. 30, 2021, killing four classmates and wounding six other students and a teacher.
Authorities said the teenage assailant had been given the gun by his parents as a Christmas present days before despite signs that he was emotionally disturbed.
The lawsuits sparked by the shooting also accuse teachers, counselors, and administrators of the Oxford school district of failing to properly respond to warning signs in the youth’s conduct the day before and on the day of the violence.
Prosecutors have said that on the morning of the shooting, a teacher discovered a drawing by Crumbley depicting a handgun, a bullet, and a bleeding figure next to the words “Blood everywhere” and “The thoughts won’t stop – help me.”
The parents were immediately summoned to the school and were urged to enter their son into counseling within 48 hours, but they resisted the idea of taking him home from school, and nobody searched the boy’s backpack, where the gun was concealed, or asked him about a weapon.
Instead, he was returned to class and emerged from a bathroom a short time later to go on his rampage.
School districts cannot be sued over “the exercise or discharge of a governmental function,” and none of the exceptions recognized under statutes or case law apply, the judge wrote.
Individual governmental employees can be subject to civil liability only if their conduct is deemed to be “grossly negligent,” as the lawsuits claim, as well as the “proximate cause of the plaintiffs’ injuries,” Brennan said.
Ultimately, however, “Ethan Crumbley’s act of firing the gun, rather than the alleged conduct of the individual Oxford defendants” was the proximate cause of injuries, the judge held.
A lawyer for one group of plaintiffs, Ven Johnson, vowed to appeal the ruling and urged Michigan legislators to amend state law, calling governmental immunity “wrong and unconstitutional.”
Besides the two lawsuits in Michigan state court, at least half a dozen similar cases related to the shooting are pending in federal court, though none of the defendants named in those complaints has been dismissed on grounds of immunity as yet, Johnson said.
Copyright 2023 Thomson/Reuters