Articles Posted in Violent Crimes

The COVID-19 pandemic has dominated the headlines for the past year, and has affected Washington, D.C. residents just as it has affected the rest of the nation. Many Washington, D.C. residents have fallen ill or even died from COVID-19, and many families are mourning loved ones but are unable to gather in-person to celebrate their lives. But amidst all this, personal injury accidents are still occurring in Washington, D.C. and across the nation—some totally separate from COVID-19 and some as a result. Some of these accidents, occurring in overcrowded and understaffed hospitals, raise questions about hospitals’ legal duty to protect patients.

For example, take a recent accident that made national headlines. According to the New York Times, an 82-year-old man was being treated for COVID-19 at a hospital when he was bludgeoned to death with an oxygen tank by his roommate at the hospital, another COVID-19 patient. The men were sharing a two-person room, and the victim began to pray one morning, angering his 37-year-old roommate, who then struck him with an oxygen tank. He was pronounced dead the next morning. The roommate was arrested and charged with murder and elder abuse. Bail was set at $1 million.

This is not the first time someone has been killed in a hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hospitals all across the country are overwhelmed, overcrowded, and understaffed, potentially setting the scene for incidents such as this. For example, the New York Times reports that in April of 2020, an 86-year-old woman died at a hospital when another patient shoved her for breaking social distancing guidelines.

As part of a D.C. premises liability claim, a plaintiff has to prove that a defendant had the duty to protect the plaintiff from foreseeable harm. Under D.C. law, generally, a defendant is not liable to an individual for the criminal acts of a third party, unless there is a special relationship between the parties. Special relationships can include employers and their employees, landlords and tenants, and businesses and their invitees.

Generally, business owners have a duty to protect invitees from injuries inflicted by third parties if the owner could have known that such acts were occurred or were about to occur. Cases involving criminal acts have a heightened burden of proving that the act was foreseeable. In cases involving criminal activity, because of the nature of criminal conduct, D.C. courts generally require that plaintiffs prove that the criminal act was “so foreseeable that a duty arises to guard against it.”

In a recent case before one state’s supreme court, the court considered whether a bar could be held liable for a person’s injuries sustained in a fight in the parking lot at closing time. In that case, the plaintiff and a friend were at the bar, and went outside when the bar was closing. The plaintiff did not have any disputes with anyone in the bar while he was inside. As the plaintiff and his friend were crossing the parking lot, they got into a fight with other customers, and the plaintiff suffered injuries that left him permanently blind.

Earlier this year, a Maryland man was punched in the face by singer and performer Chris Brown outside a W Hotel. According to a report by the Washington Post, the altercation began after Brown took a picture with the assault victim.

Evidently, during the criminal trial against both Brown and his bodyguard, it came out that the two men both hit the victim in the face during the confrontation. When the civil suit was first filed, the assault victim was seeking $3 million in damages for his injuries. However, according to statements by the man’s attorney, the settlement they most recently reached is around $100,000, although the exact amount is confidential.

When Brown was arrested for the assault, he was taken into jail because the assault constituted a violation of the probation order he was given back in 2009 for the assault of his then-girlfriend, Rihanna. After serving four months in jail while the current case was resolved, the judge decided to let Brown out on time served.

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A federal appellate court approved class certification and a settlement in a class action lawsuit based on the 2010 explosion and oil spill on an oil drilling rig operated by British Petroleum (BP) in the Gulf of Mexico. In re Deepwater Horizon, et al, No. 13-30095, slip op. (5th Cir., Jan. 10, 2014). The spill led to several hundred lawsuits by individuals and businesses claiming property damage, and by individuals claiming personal injury. The recent ruling rejected a request by BP to vacate the district court order approving the settlement. While this ruling specifically involves claims for property damage, BP’s claims and the court’s ruling could also apply to personal injury class actions.

BP operated, Deepwater Horizon, an exploratory oil drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, about forty miles south of Louisiana. The rig was drilling a well located at a depth of about 5,100 feet underwater. On April 20, 2010, a pocket of methane gas rose into the rig, ignited, and caused an explosion that killed eleven workers and injured over a dozen. Oil flowed from the well directly into the Gulf for almost three months releasing an estimated 205 to 210 million gallons. Oil washed ashore in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, resulting in widespread reports of injured and dead wildlife, property damage, and health problems among residents of the affected areas.

BP was named as a defendant in hundreds of lawsuits. The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML) consolidated many of the claims in In re Oil Spill by the Oil Rig “Deepwater Horizon,” No. 2:10-md-02179 (E.D. La.), in August 2010 in order to address common issues as efficiently as possible. BP established a fund to pay claims known as the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF), which would eventually pay out over $6 billion. Starting in 2011, the company negotiated with the plaintiffs in the JPML case to transfer claims from the GCCF to a court-supervised fund.

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Police had no duty to assist or protect a civilian who risked his life to stop a killer on a New York subway car, according to the defendant’s arguments in Lozito v. City of New York. The plaintiff sued the city and the NYPD after a suspect wanted for several murders attacked him in view of two officers. Unfortunately, caselaw going up to the U.S. Supreme Court may support the city’s argument, as it pertains to civil liability for failure to prevent or investigate individual crimes. In the absence of a specific duty established by statute, law enforcement is generally not liable to crime victims for such omissions.

The plaintiff, Joseph Lozito, was on a subway train on the morning of Saturday, February 12, 2011, when Maksim Gelman boarded the train at Manhattan’s Penn Station. Gelman was the subject of a citywide manhunt for a crime spree that left four people dead. Gelman pounded on the door of the motorman’s car, where two NYPD officers were stationed as part of the manhunt. Gelman turned and ran towards Lozito when the officers refused to open the door. Using a move he learned from watching mixed martial arts on television, Lozito knocked Gelman to the ground, and the two fought. By the time police officers intervened, Lozito had at least seven knife wounds. Gelman was later sentenced to two hundred years in prison.

Lozito filed suit against the NYPD for failing to protect him. The NYPD’s account of the incident states that Officer Terrance Howell tackled Gelman, but Lozito claims that Howell locked himself and another officer in the motorman’s car. A grand-jury member allegedly told Lozito that Howell admitted to staying put during the attack because he thought Gelman might have a gun. The city’s argument that the NYPD does not owe a duty of protection to any individual, but rather to the public at large, is fairly well-settled as the “public duty doctrine.”

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The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia recently entered judgments in several lawsuits against the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Iranian Ministry of Information and Security (MOIS). The plaintiffs were victims of the 1983 U.S. Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, in which the government of Iran and the MOIS were implicated. The lawsuits were brought under an amendment to the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act (FSIA), which provides a federal cause of action for injuries against a foreign state designated as a sponsor of terrorism. The court awarded damages to the plaintiffs in both cases, although the question of recovering damages from the defendants remains highly unsettled.

FSIA, which first became law in 1976, gives federal district courts original jurisdiction over most civil claims against foreign states, but applies many of the principles of sovereign immunity. This is the legal doctrine that a government entity may not be sued unless it has waived immunity. It applies in lawsuits against city, county, or state governments, where a claimant must follow steps set out by statute before filing suit. People claiming damages for injuries caused by foreign states have generally been barred from relief by this doctrine. Federal courts applied FSIA in blocking claims for damages caused by the September 11 terror attacks in In re Terrorist Attacks on September 11, 2001, 538 F.3d 71 (2nd Cir. 2008), and a 2003 terror attack in Riyadh in Heroth v. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 565 F.Supp.2d 59 (D.D.C. 2008).

Congress added an exception to FSIA in 1996, with amendments added in 2008, for foreign states designated as “state sponsors of terrorism” either at the time of the alleged injury or as a result of the alleged injury. The foreign state must also remain designated as such at the time a claimant files suit. The exception applies to claims for personal injuries or wrongful death resulting from acts such as hostage taking, torture, sabotage, or the support of such acts by the foreign state.

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The families of two women killed during a 2007 shooting rampage on the Virginia Tech campus received a jury award of $4 million each in their claims against the university for negligence. The jury found that the university negligently delayed warnings about Seung-Hui Cho, who had shot and killed two people in a campus dormitory two-and-a-half hours before embarking on the deadliest shooting spree in modern American history. Cho ultimately killed thirty-two people before turning a gun on himself. The university, backed by the Commonwealth of Virginia, is now asserting a state law that caps damage awards against the state at $100,000, as the families fight back.

Cho was a 23 year-old undergraduate student at Virginia Tech with a history of mental illness and “abnormal behavior.” His shooting spree began at about 7:15 a.m. on April 16, 2007, when he killed two students on the fourth floor of a high-rise dormitory. Cho then reportedly spent approximately two-and-a-half hours re-arming himself and mailing a package a photographs and documents to NBC News. At about 9:45 a.m., he went to a classroom building across the campus where he shot dozens of people, killing thirty, over the course of nine minutes. Cho then committed suicide when police breached the building.

Virginia Tech soon faced accusations that it negligently failed to warn students and staff after the first two murders, which allowed Cho’s rampage to proceed almost unimpeded. Police initially thought the first two deaths resulted from a “romantic dispute.” The university sent an e-mail to students and staff advising them to be cautious more than two hours later, roughly twenty minutes before Cho’s second attack began. Multiple negligence and wrongful death lawsuits followed.

The families of twenty-four of Cho’s victims, as well as eighteen people injured by the shootings, settled with the state in 2008 for $11 million. Several families refused to settle, and two of them recently went to trial.

In March 2012, a trial took place in a courtroom in Christiansburg, Virginia for the families of two victims, Erin Peterson and Julia Pryde. The university repeated many of its defenses, maintaining that officials believed Cho had fled the campus after the first two shootings, and that they did not connect the two series of shootings until later. The jury, after deliberating for just over three hours, returned a verdict finding that Virginia Tech officials were negligent in delaying warnings about the first two shootings, and that this delay directly contributed to the victims’ deaths. It awarded $4 million to each family .

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Four American civilians employed by security contractor Blackwater were killed in Fallujah, Iraq in March 2004 after gunmen opened fire on their vehicles. When the vehicles stopped, a crowd of people converged, throwing rocks and setting the vehicles on fire. The four men were shot and killed and, in a scene that would haunt American headlines, their bodies were pulled from the burned vehicles and dragged through the city. Pictures shown on television depicted people mutilating the bodies and hanging two of them from a bridge over the Euphrates River. Media around the world showed these images. The U.S. launched an assault on the city in response to the incident, which occurred at the beginning of the second year of American involvement in Iraq.

The four men worked as guards for Blackwater, now known as Academi. Blackwater was contracted by the U.S. military to provide various security services for American forces. One of the men was a former Navy SEAL, and the other three were former Army Rangers. At the time of the attack, they were traveling in two Mitsubishi SUV’s escorting a convoy of trucks to an American base to pick up some kitchen equipment. They had reportedly bypassed a Marine checkpoint when they entered Fallujah.

In January 2005, about eight months after the attack, the families of the four men filed a lawsuit in U.S. federal court against Blackwater. The lawsuit accused Blackwater of violating its contractual obligations to the men by putting them in harm’s way without adequate armor or weapons. The SUV’s were not armored, and they did not have sufficient personnel to operate rear guns that might have offered protection from gunmen in the city.

Blackwater argued that it should have immunity from lawsuits under the principle of sovereign immunity. This principle typically applies to government entities and officials. Blackwater, being a private business, argued that the military’s widespread use of private contractors gave them the benefit of sovereign immunity. The company took this argument as far as the U.S. Supreme Court, who declined to hear the case. Then Blackwater invoked a mandatory arbitration clause in the men’s employment contracts.

A federal judge ordered the parties to arbitration in 2007, and they spent more than three years fighting over payment of arbitrators’ fees. The families filed an appeal of the judge’s order with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the parties entered into a settlement agreement before the appeal could be heard. The terms of the settlement remain confidential.

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The parents of Michelle Fournier, a woman killed in a hair salon shooting that left eight people dead and one wounded, have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the alleged shooter. The alleged gunman, Scott Dekraai, is Fournier’s ex-husband. The lawsuit asks the court to freeze Dekraai’s assets. According to the family’s attorney, their goal is to obtain compensation for Fournier and Dekraai’s eight year-old son, who is left effectively orphaned by the incident.

The family of another woman killed in the salon, Christy Wilson, has also filed a lawsuit for wrongful death against Dekraai. Her husband alleges in the suit that she “lingered for a ‘significant’ period of time before she died,” and seeks compensation for hospital and funeral costs and loss of “love, care, companionship.” The two lawsuits will likely proceed alongside, but independent of, the criminal prosecution.

Dekraai had taken Fournier to court to modify their child custody arrangement, hoping to get more time with their son. A court-appointed psychologist recommended that the court keep the existing custody plan in place. On October 12, 2011, Dekraai allegedly drove to the salon in Seal Beach, California where Fournier worked, armed with three handguns and wearing a bulletproof vest. According to police and Dekraai’s own statements to police, he shot eight people in the salon, killing seven, including Fournier and Wilson. He then shot and killed a man sitting in a car in the parking lot, telling police later that he thought the man might be a police officer reaching for a weapon.

Police arrested Dekraai shortly after he left the salon. He reportedly offered a full confession to investigators, admitting to all of the shootings and offering explanations for his actions. Prosecutors have charged Dekraai with eight counts of murder and one count of attempted murder, one for each shooting victim. They have announced that they will seek the death penalty. His arraignment is scheduled for November 29.

There are several key differences between the criminal and civil ases. The claims brought by the families for Fournier and Wilson seek civil damages for wrongful death. The criminal case, brought by prosecutors who work for the state of California, seek to punish Dekraai in the criminal justice system. The desired outcome of a wrongful death lawsuit is always monetary damages, while a criminal prosecution seeks fines, imprisonment, or sometimes the death penalty.

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A Colorado man faces assault charges after a fight over a parking space outside a bagel shop on the morning of Saturday, October 1. According to an arrest warrant issued October 4, the victim suffered a fractured spine, head injuries, and multiple abrasions and contusions. The victim presented in court that day with a U-shaped wound on his forehead. The incident made news in part because the alleged assailant had returned from Pakistan a few months earlier, where he had worked as a contractor for the CIA and was involved in a shooting incident.

Police originally arrested the man on charges of third-degree assault. When it became clear that the victim suffered a broken vertebra, authorities raised the charge to second-degree assault. As of October 5, no charges were pending against the victim for any actions in the fight. The alleged assailant admitted to hitting the victim first, but claims that the victim also hit him five times. Colorado law defines third-degree assault in part as “with criminal negligence…caus[ing] bodily injury to another person by means of a deadly weapon” and classifies it as a class 1 misdemeanor. Second-degree assault is defined in part as “[w]ith intent to cause bodily injury to another person…caus[ing] such injury to any person by means of a deadly weapon” and classified as a class 4 felony. Reports on the incident do not indicate if police allege use of a weapon by the alleged assailant. The key difference between the two criminal charges is the required mental state of the accused, although the distinction for authorities appeared to be the extent of the victim’s injuries.

Spinal cord injuries, defined as any injury resulting from trauma, can have serious consequences for the victim. Effects range from incontinence or impaired mobility to full paralysis. Treatments for spinal cord injuries generally involved extensive rehabilitative therapy, as well as surgeries and pharmaceutical and psychological treatment. Obviously a long course of treatment becomes exceedingly expensive for the victim. While the diagnosis and treatment of spinal cord injuries has advanced over the years, severe injuries still carry little hope for full recovery. In addition to treatment and rehabilitation, victims must make substantial adjustments in their lifestyle and occupation.

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