Was the Aurora theater shooting "foreseeable" by owners?

The Denver Post is reporting that a lawsuit being brought by survivors and family members in the wake of the 2012 Aurora theater shooting against the theater may move forward.


The owner of the Aurora movie theater that was the site of a deadly 2012 attack could have reasonably enough foreseen the danger of such an attack to be held liable for it, a federal judge ruled Friday.

Noting “the grim history of mass shootings and mass killings that have occurred in more recent times,” U.S. District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson ruled that Cinemark — owner of the Century Aurora 16 theater — could have predicted that movie patrons might be targeted for an attack. Jackson’s ruling allows 20 lawsuits filed by survivors of the attack or relatives of those killed to proceed toward trial.

[See update below]

While I would think that such a lawsuit is simply absurd, even in our overly litigious society, it’s worth noting that the judge has not ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, but simply allowed the case to be heard. Still, the idea that simply because the theater owner should be aware that mass shootings had taken place in other (non-theater) crowded buildings they should be liable for the actions of madmen boggles the mind. Dr. James Joyner sees it the same way.

It’s easy to sympathize with the families of those murdered in the Aurora theater shooting or any of the other horrific mass shooting incidents in recent years. But it’s just bizarre to put the blame on the theater owner, school principal, or others holding perfectly normal events.

For one thing, while they’re all over the news, mass shootings are nonetheless exceedingly rare and unpredictable. It’s a near certainty that another one will happen. But we have no way of knowing at which of millions of potential venues it might occur. It’s simply unreasonable to harden all of them against an exceedingly unlikely event.


I particularly agreed with an article from Lenore Skenazy – which Joyner links – which seems to put the sensible cap on this discussion.

While the ruling does not decide any of the lawsuits, it does establish that they can proceed. In doing so, it endorses what I call “worst-first thinking”—dreaming up the worst case scenario first (“What if someone comes in and shoots up our book club?”) and proceeding as if it’s likely to happen.

Worst-first thinking promotes constant panic. The word for that isn’t prudence. It’s paranoia.

When you go to see a movie at the theater, you – as a patron – have a few reasonable expectations. You should be able to expect that the movie will be shown with clear video and audio. The snacks should not prove to be toxic. The building – under normal weather conditions – should not fall down on your head. If any of those conditions fall though, you’d probably have a right to demand compensation from the owners. But if your loss comes from the actions of a madman (”Perhaps the defining feature of crazy people is that they’re unpredictable”) then you are placing the blame on the owners for something as far out of their control as if a tornado hit the theater out of a clear sky.

As Joyner also notes, don’t we all take a certain amount of personal responsibility when we leave our homes? We all know that subways have been gassed, building have been imploded and workplaces have been the scenes of gunfire. Yes, we hope that those in control of these locations take all the reasonable precautions possible, but not every municipal swimming pool can reasonably be hardened to the same level as the Green Zone in Baghdad. This lawsuit doesn’t appear to have any merit, at least as I see it.


UPDATE: (Jazz) As has been noted in both the comments and various places, the Denver Post substantially misread the judge’s decision in one regard. Popehat has an excellent summary here. The judge wasn’t actually saying the shooting was foreseeable, but rather that a jury might think it was. But either way, the result is the same, as I wrote above, in that he is allowing the case to move forward.

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