Massive Federal Lawsuit Brought Against Government and Gun Manufacturers in the Wake of the Uvalde Massacre
On September 28, 2022, parents of three of the victims who survived the May 24, 2022, school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, filed the first lawsuit related to the shooting in federal court. The shooting took place at Robb Elementary School, where 18-year-old Salvador Ramos shot and killed nineteen students and two teachers, and injured seventeen others. The shooter entered the school through an unlocked side entrance, and remained in the school for over an hour until border patrol police shot and killed him.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Uvalde police and public officials were heavily criticized for not acting sooner, for their apparent unwillingness to confront the shooter despite knowing that he had already shot children in the school, and for preventing parents trying to reach their children from entering the school.
In July 2022, a Texas House of Representatives committee found that the slow response was the result of “systemic failures” and “egregious poor decision making” by law enforcement, who “failed to prioritize saving the lives of innocent victims over their own safety.”
The lawsuit was filed by the parents of three of the students at Robb Elementary who were in the school building at the time of the shooting. One of the students was shot in the leg by Ramos, while the other two hid from the shooter.
The wide-ranging lawsuit names two sets of defendants, state officials involved in the response to the shooting, as well as manufacturers and retailers whose products and services the plaintiffs allege are connected to the shooting.
The plaintiffs argue that the city of Uvalde, the Uvalde School District, as well as the former police chief of the School District, the acting chief of the Uvalde Police Department, the principal of Robb Elementary, violated the plaintiffs’ right to due process of law under the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution.
The plaintiffs allege that the acts and omissions of the named state officials, acting as representatives of the state, violated the plaintiffs’ right not to deprived of life, liberty, or property, without the due process of law.
Generally, the failure of the state or state officials to protect an individual against private violence does not the violate the right to due process. However, when state action affirmatively places an individual in a position of danger, the failure to protect that individual this may constitute a due process violation.
The plaintiffs contend that once the School District ordered a lockdown and prevented the plaintiffs from leaving the school, they assumed a duty of care over the plaintiffs. Further, state officials used their authority to prevent law enforcement officers from intervening to stop the active shooter, creating a dangerous situation for the plaintiffs. The conduct of the state officials prior to and during the shooting demonstrated a conscious indifference to federal and state law, as well as policies and procedures regarding school safety and preparing their schools, staff, and police for a school shooter.
To substantiate the claim that that state officials created the danger and failed in their duty of care, the plaintiffs specifically allege that a teacher propped open an exterior door to the school through which the gunman entered, that none of the exterior doors to the schools were locked, and that the principal failed to alert teachers to the shooter using the intercom system.
Additionally, the plaintiffs contend that the School District regularly failed to abide by security policies, such as always locking exterior doors and ensuring broken locks were repaired. The School District, along with its police chief, and the Uvalde Police department, failed to properly train police for active shooter situations in compliance with a state mandate. The individual police chiefs failed to assume command and execute active shooter trading protocols during the shooting, which delayed an effective law enforcement response. As a consequence, of these failures, the shooter imprisoned, terrorized, and shot at the plaintiffs.
Such indifference in the face of a danger created by the state violated the duty of care assumed by the defendants acting under the color of law, unlawfully depriving the plaintiffs of their due process rights.
The plaintiffs also seek to hold liable the manufacturer of the gun used by the shooter, the local gun shop where the shooter purchased the gun, and the online supplier of firearm accessories from whom the shooter purchased a trigger system to convert a semi-automatic rifle into a fully automatic rifle. Plaintiffs argue that, under a products liability cause of action, these gun defendants are liable for marketing defects which, they allege, render the product they offered unreasonably dangerous.
Specifically, the plaintiffs maintain that the gun defendants aggressively marketed firearms to young adults whom they know lack the maturity, skill, and experience to responsibly use weapons like the AR-15 rifle used by the shooter in Uvalde, or to appreciate the risk such weapon pose to others.
In a products liability case based on a marketing defect theory, the defect at issue is not a defect in the product itself, but rather the failure of the manufacturer or distributor to warn customers of the potential dangers or common hazards of the product, with clear product labeling.
In such circumstances, a seller or distributor can be held liable when the foreseeable risks of harm posed by the product could have been reduced or avoided by reasonable instructions or warnings, and the omission of the instructions or warnings renders the product not reasonably safe.
The plaintiffs note that the products offered for sale by the gun defendants fail to warn young adults of the necessity for adequate training and supervision when using the guns, or that use of guns by young adults in particular carries a high risk to oneself or others specifically because of mood and behavior instability caused by developmental changes in young adults. Knowingly marketing these products to young adults without adequate warning renders them unreasonably dangerous. These unreasonably dangerous guns and gun accessories reached the Uvalde shooter, so the marketing defect was a proximate cause of the physical, emotional, and other harms suffered by the plaintiffs at the hands of the shooter.
Plaintiffs also charge that the gun defendants are liable for negligent entrustment, for selling an AR-15 rifle an 18-year-old, knowing that such weapons are well-suited for misuse when sold to young adults. Plaintiffs also allege that the local gun shop from which Ramos purchase two AR-15 rifles and 375 rounds of ammunition had actual knowledge of Ramos’s dangerous propensities, based on his appearance and demeanor in the store while purchasing the guns.
A person can be liable for negligent entrustment for supplying an item to another when that supplier knows or has reason to know that because of youth or inexperience that person is likely to use the item in a manner involving unreasonable risk of physical harm to himself and others.
Private nuisance is a tort that protects the use and enjoyment of private land. Plaintiffs argue that the gun defendants marketing of ARR-15 rifles in Uvalde, knowing they have no utility for untrained young adults, deprived the plaintiffs of the safe, secure, and peaceful use and enjoyment of their homes and property.
The plaintiffs also sued the communications company that designed the radio communications devices used by the first responders, as well as the manufacturer of the security door locking mechanisms used at Robb Elementary. Both are alleged to be liable under manufacturing defects and failure to warn theories of product liability.
According to the plaintiffs, the communications devices failed to operate properly during the shooting incident, making it difficult for first responders to receive updated situational information. Similarly, they argue that the locking mechanism on the doors failed to lock after being closed, as they were designed to do. The defective nature of these products, designed and marketed as safety devices, and the failure of the companies to warn of the risk that the products could fail during normal use, rendered them unreasonably dangerous, according to the plaintiffs.
Finally, the plaintiffs seek to hold all the defendants liable for negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The plaintiffs allege that each of the defendants, in their various roles in relation to the shooting, had a duty of care to the plaintiffs which they breached, giving rise to negligence action.
Liability for intentional infliction of emotional distress may be sought against someone who intentionally or recklessly causes severe emotional distress to another person by extreme or outrageous conduct. The plaintiffs assert that the conduct of each of the defendants was extreme, outrageous, atrocious, and intolerable in a civilized community. The defendants’ deliberate indifference to the risk of emotional distress of vulnerable young people caused by their acts and omission was a proximate cause of the severe emotional distress suffered by the plaintiffs during the shooting, and in its aftermath.
The outcome of the lawsuit is uncertain. Successful lawsuits against gun manufacturers in particular face the obstacle of a federal law which protects gun manufacturers from liability for the misuse of firearms by third parties, though it does have exceptions, including for product defects and negligent entrustment.
A lawyer for the plaintiff expressed hope that the lawsuit could ensure that the plaintiffs have access to the resources and care they need to deal the harms and ongoing trauma they have suffered as a result of the shooting.
 Camacho, et al
v. The Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District, et al;
 42 U.S. Code § 1983.
 Camacho, et al v. The Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District, et al; https://www.courthousenews.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/camacho-uvalde-complaint-usdc-texas.pdf.