Periodically, our nation is rocked by a senseless tragedy: a gunman who attacks and kills innocent students or bystanders. Most recently, Americans were shocked as a deeply disturbed individual, Jared Loughner, attacked those assembled at a “Congress on your corner” event, claiming lives and leaving others injured, including a brain injury to a U.S. representative. In the wake of such tragedies, many people, including the wrongful death attorneys of Passen & Powell, are left wondering if something more could have been done to prevent these needless deaths and injuries.
Immediately following the Tucson shooting, videos Loughner had posted on YouTube revealed, even to the untrained, that Loughner was suffering from mental illness. As we learn more about Loughner and his background, it becomes painfully obvious that many, many individuals were aware of Loughner’s illness, and his potential for violence, yet chose to do nothing.
In this case, the institution with the most knowledge of the threat Loughner posed was Pima Community College, which Loughner attended prior to the shooting. The college has identified Loughner as a threat, and potentially violent. In the wake of the shooting, Pima Community College officials released 51 pages of documents from the campus police, describing Loughner as, among other things, “creepy,” and “very hostile.” These documents detailed at least five incidents that had required a response from campus police – including the final incident, Loughner’s posting of a bizarre video on YouTube describing the college as a “scam” and linking the institution to genocide.
So, what action did the college take? Pima Community College chose to remove Loughner from the school, thus protecting the school and its students. The college informed Loughner, and his family, that he could not return unless a mental health examination revealed that he was not dangerous. Unsurprisingly, he never came back.
Could the college have done more? Maybe. As our personal injury lawyers are well aware, the law varies from state to state, in Arizona state law permits a college to force a student whom the school identifies as sick or potentially violent into counseling. This issue is becoming more and more significant as the number of students suffering from mental illness steadily increases. Recently, the American College Counseling Association published survey results showing that of the students who visit college counseling centers, 44 percent suffer from a severe psychological disorders – increased from only 16 percent in 2000. Likewise, 25 percent of all college students are now on psychiatric medication, up from only 17 percent just a decade ago.
Of these students, most do not pose any threat to themselves or others. But for those that do, schools such as Pima Community College have options available. And the school need not know absolutely that a student poses a threat – it simply must have a valid basis for believing that without treatment, the student could become a threat. As Chick Arnold, who serves on the board of Mental Health American of Arizona, has stated, “You don’t have to wait for that dangerousness to have manifested itself yet. If you think the guy has a mental disorder, is not willing to get treatment and in the absence of treatment might become dangerous, that would be covered to get someone into the system.”
Pima Community College did nothing of the kind. Indeed, a school representative stated that the college had never taken advantage of this law. The school did not file a petition to force Loughner to receive a psychiatric assessment. It also appears that the college never even alerted authorities outside the school to the potential danger Loughner posed. Our wrongful death lawyers are deeply saddened by the consequences of the school’s failure to take advantage of this state law.
Can the school be held liable, in court, for this failure? That is a complicated question, and one that has not yet been answered under Arizona law. Had the school taken action, Loughner could have received the help he needed, perhaps preventing this tragedy. And action by the school would have placed Loughner in the care of those who do have a legal duty to take action.
Specifically, action by the school would have forced Loughner into the care of a mental health professional – whether a psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist. As our wrongful death attorneys know, such professionals have a duty to warn third parties and inform the authorities if a client may pose a threat to himself or any other identifiable individual. This duty has been established since the 1970s, when the landmark case of Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California established the duty.
Even when there is no threat to an identifiable victim, but simply the threat of violence against innocent bystanders, the mental health professional can then take action – by forcing the patient into treatment, or institutionalization (temporary or permanent) if necessary.
It is too late to save the victims of Loughner’s Tucson rampage. But our personal injury lawyers hope that Pima Community College, and other schools nationwide, take note of the consequences of failure to act. Perhaps if they do, there will be fewer innocent victims in the future.
For a free consultation with an experienced Chicago wrongful death attorney at Passen & Powell, call us at (312) 527-4500.