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Lawsuits always seem to follow tragedy

By Peter G. Chronis
Denver Post Staff Writer

Nov. 26 - First comes the horror and shock of a deadly school shooting, then unspeakable grief. Inevitably, litigation follows.

Events have followed that pattern in Pearl, Miss.; West Paducah, Ky.; Jonesboro, Ark.; Springfield, Ore; and other communities around the nation.

Jefferson County is proving to be no different. One wrongful-death lawsuit from the Columbine High School massacre already is wending its way through the courts, and 20 other victims' families took the first step toward lodging lawsuits last month.

While the criminal courts were able to bring gunmen in other school shootings to justice, that won't happen here. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold robbed the community of that chance by committing suicide.

And without a criminal trial to help answer the central question - Why did they do it? - the victims and their families are left with the civil courts.

There, they can get answers, afix blame, or recover medical costs, Rick Castaldo, whose son Richard was paralyzed in the April 20 attack on Columbine, said in a recent letter to the editor.

Castaldo is among the 20 families who in October filed notices of intent to sue. "I would like to get to the bottom of what happened," Castaldo wrote.

But families who file suits run the risk of dividing their communities.

Take what's happening in West Paducah, Ky., for instance.

"In Paducah, there was a huge outpouring of community support, both financial and emotional, for (the victims' families)," said attorney Michael Owsley. Owsley represents school officials who are among dozens of defendants sued by the victims' families after the shooting there.

"Several hundred thousand dollars were raised, medical bills were forgiven," he said. "Once the suit was filed, people still sympathized for the loss, but obviously they didn't feel as they did before." The hard feelings stemmed from the fact that the victims' families had "sued some people who they not only knew but socialized with and would see in the community."

But Michael Hartung, a Mississippi attorney who represents the mother of a girl killed at Pearl High School, said civil lawsuits can produce more good than bad.

Lawsuits can help a community heal and bring closure, he said.

Civil cases also can produce change, Hartung said. He cited lawsuits brought against tobacco companies, asbestos manufacturers, gun makers and the Ford Motor Co. for "making Pintos that exploded in a ball of fire."

For the Oregon family of wounded student Teresa Miltonberger, a lawsuit was much simpler.

Teresa "suffered a very severe injury," her lawyer, Art Johnson, said. "She faces a lifetime of medical care and counseling assistance." The lawsuit is way to cover her costs.

After the Columbine shootings, the parents of slain student Isaiah Shoels' filed a wrongful-death suit in May against the Klebold and Harris families. They have since added as defendants the two men accused of supplying one of the guns used in the rampage. The gun manufacturers and the woman who provided the other three guns also are expected to be added.

A second lawsuit involving an ancillary dispute was filed in federal court by the families of slain students Daniel Rohrbough and Kelly Fleming. The suit accuses the Jefferson County school district of trampling their free-speech rights by refusing to hang ceramic art tiles with religious symbols on Columbine High's walls.

In mid-October, 20 families of those killed or injured at Columbine filed notices of intent to sue the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, school district or other government agencies. One of the notices came from Klebold's parents.

Under Colorado law, families that intend to follow through on the notices with full-fledged lawsuits can do so starting in mid-January, or 90 days after they filed their notices.

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