Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Premises Liability Case
Justices push attorneys on where to draw the line for landowner liability in mass shootings

by Jessica Folker

The Colorado Supreme Court heard oral arguments March 10 in a premises liability lawsuit arising from the 2015 Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado Springs. Victims of the attack sued Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains under the state’s Premises Liability Act in 2016, alleging PPRM could have done more to protect visitors to its clinic.

Among other issues, the court is considering whether an individual who acts to cause mass casualties without regard to his own survival or capture is the predominant cause of harm, such that a landowner cannot be liable under the PLA.

John Roche, attorney for PPRM, summed up his argument in the affirmative: “Where, as here, a heavily armed fanatic attacks and kills suddenly, without regard for his safety, his conduct is so causatively predominant that the landowners’ alleged negligence is not the legal cause of the harm.”

Justice Richard Gabriel asked under what circumstances a mass shooter case should be dismissed on summary judgment, as the Planned Parenthood suit had been by the trial court, and when there might be a question of fact.

Roche said he’s not asking the court to draw a firm line, but that it shouldn’t accept that “all a plaintiff has to do is allege an additional safety measure, and then the jury would be allowed to speculate as to whether that additional safety measure would have hinged an unhinged criminal.”

“Maybe the root of what I’m struggling with is, what does ‘predominant cause’ mean?” said Gabriel. “Is it, ‘I know it when I see it’?”

When pressed to come up with a rule, Roche said it must be determined on a case-by-case basis, but he would ask the court to follow the rationale of federal courts in dismissing premises liability suits related to other mass shootings, including the Columbine High School and Aurora theater shootings.

To read this and other complete articles featured in the March 16, 2020 print edition of Law Week Colorado, copies are available for purchase online.