The midnight shooting on Friday at an Aurora, Colo., movie premiere of "The Dark Knight Rises" is unlikely to provide legal recourse for families of the victims that seek to sue Warner Bros. and other companies behind the latest Batman film, according to insurance experts.
Liability lawsuits are a common and understandable reaction to senseless violence and the sudden, unfathomable loss of a loved one. However, with rare exceptions, legal attempts to blame the makers of television shows, films or video games for inciting the violent acts of nonemployees rarely succeed.
In fact, such a lawsuit was brought and ultimately dismissed just up the road from the Aurora movie theater in Littleton, Colo., following the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School.
In that suit, lawyers for the grieving families sought a total of $5 billion in damages from 25 entertainment companies, claiming that their violent video games, films and websites led to the massacre. The suit specifically targeted the video game "Doom" because one of the young gunmen reportedly named his shotgun "Arlene" after a character in the game, and the Leonardo DiCaprio film, "The Basketball Diaries," in which the protagonist guns down classmates in a dream.
A Colorado federal court dismissed the case in 2002, finding that the media companies could not have foreseen that their products would cause acts of violence.
A similar $33 million lawsuit met a similar fate following the 1997 shooting spree in which three died at Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky.
"Every time something awful like this happens, there's an urge to try to blame the media for it," lawyer Paul Smith, who represented Nintendo of America in the Columbine lawsuit, told Insurance Journal.
Smith explains that, under tort law, an injured person may seek compensation for a wrongful act if he or she can prove the media company could have foreseen the potential harm its product would cause. But clear that hurdle, and plaintiffs face an even larger obstacle in the First Amendment.
In 2001, Time Warner faced a similar suit after two young moviegoers who had taken LSD went on a multistate copycat killing spree after watching Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers." The court held the director and producer harmless and dismissed the case.
Walter Dellinger, who defended Time Warner in that actioin, summed up the victory this way: "There is simply no way for the government in a free society to shut down protected expression because someone uses that expression as a springboard for violence."
Warner Bros. reacted to the shocking Aurora attack the way most of us would. In addition to issuing condolences to the victims and families of those killed and saying the studio was "deeply saddened" by the shootings, it canceled the film's Paris premiere and yanked trailers for its upcoming film, "Gangster Squad," which contain a machine gun shooting scene.
If history is any precedent for yet another unprecedented tragedy, the makers of "The Dark Knight Rises" will not be held legally liable for the Aurora massacre.
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