The first headline I was read something like "Survivors of Aurora Shooting Forced To Pay Cinemark $700k!" Of course, that kind of thing had me wondering, so I clicked around a bit and came across this account in the LA Times.
At root is the following basic problem: a crazy young man went into a movie theater and shot a lot of people. The shooter has been sentenced to life in prison. He is no longer a threat to the public. However, many of those injured in the shooting have suffered great hardship, trauma and expense. How are they to be repaid?
Apparently some of them concluded that since the person to actually perpetrated the crime was incapable of making restitution to them, the solution was to sue the movie theater chain on the theory that it had been negligent in not keeping them safe.
They were on the verge of losing the case, and the judge told them as much. He urged Cinemark and the plaintiffs to reach a settlement. The settlement offered would have left the 41 plaintiffs with $150k to split, and committed Cinemark to making some changes in their safety procedures, which would theoretically decrease the likelihood of such a mass shooting occurring in a Cinemark again. (To me, this seems like a reach, given that we're talking about such a profoundly infrequent and unpredictable occurrence in the first place.) Some of the plaintiffs decided not to take the settlement offer, and the judge proceeded to rule against them. Result? According to Colorado law, if you sue and lose, you are responsible for the legal costs of the person you sued. This leaves the plaintiffs on the hook for at least $700k in Cinemark's court costs.
No one wants to see people who have already suffered much be hit with even more suffering, but on the basic legal matter it seems very likely to me that this outcome is entirely just. I find it very hard to believe that Cinemark did anything negligent of a sort that could be expected to result in a catastrophe such s the Aurora shooting. To hold them liable for the victims would be unjust.
What it seems like people are struggling with is the fact that there's not some deep pocketed person to hold responsible for the crime so that people can receive recompense for their suffering. And yet given that the criminal is completely without means to make restitution to the people injured, what recourse is there really? None. The shooter was entirely capable of creating evils that he cannot remedy. The fact that he did so in a Cimemark movie theater does not make them at fault for it any more than a stranger bursting into my house and shooting my guests would make me at fault for his victim's injuries.
I think it is the case that to the extent that people have become incapacitated and unable to care for themselves as they had in the past, society has a duty to help take care of those people -- just as it would in a situation where someone was disabled through some more normal kind of injury. But they are not owed the kind of vast punitive damages that litigators so often seek. Terrible, terrible things sometimes happen in the world, and there is not necessarily someone who owes it to us to make them up to us. That is simply how the world is.
Moreover, being sued for frivolous reasons is itself a painful and destructive experience. Sure, Cinemark is large, but they are ruled by the same laws as those who are much less deep pocketed. The law requiring those who bring unsuccessful lawsuits against others to cover the legal costs of those they attempted to sue is actually a pretty good way of causing people to think twice before using the very process of law to punish those they don't like.