Victims of the 2015 mass shooting at the Colorado Springs’ lone Planned Parenthood can sue the reproductive health care nonprofit over what they claim was lax security, a Colorado appeals court ruled Thursday.
The ruling reverses a lower court decision that said only the alleged shooter, Robert Dear, was liable for the deaths of three people and wounding of nine.
The surviving victims and families of the deceased argued in their lawsuit that the “long history of violence” at abortion clinics should have alerted Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains to take security precautions that might have prevented the shooting rampage.
The appellate court decision did not say the victims would win their lawsuit, only that a jury must decide the outcome.
Dear faces 179 criminal charges, including several counts of murder. However, a court has determined that he is incompetent due to a psychotic delusional disorder. He is being held at the Colorado Mental Health Institute Pueblo.
During court hearings, Dear admitted he committed the shooting, proclaiming himself “a warrior for the babies.”
He is accused of driving to the Colorado Springs clinic and shooting several people in the parking lot, two of them fatally. He then allegedly shot several more people through the clinic’s glass door.
As police arrived, Dear then allegedly shot at them, wounding five and killing an off-duty University of Colorado at Colorado Springs campus policeman. He surrendered after what court records describe as a “lengthy gunbattle.”
The lawsuit against Planned Parenthood was filed in Denver District Court by the wife of Ke’Arre Stewart, who accuses the clinic of the wrongful death of her husband, and Samantha Wagner, who seeks compensation for a permanent arm injury from a gunshot. They accuse the clinic of negligence and outrageous conduct.
The lawsuit says Planned Parenthood “provided little or no security at (the clinic) such as an armed guard and perimeter fencing, as they do in other clinics.”
In addition, “It provided no signs, posters, verbal or any other type of warning describing the risk of physical harm, injury or death associated with entering (Planned Parenthood) properties,” the lawsuit says.
The victims argued the clinic violated Colorado’s Premises Liability Act, which requires property owners to keep persons they invite onto their property safe from known hazards.
Judge Elizabeth A. Starrs granted a summary judgment in favor of Planned Parenthood, saying Dear created the hazard, not the clinic.
On appeal, attorneys for the victims argued that known attacks at abortion clinics meant Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains should have understood the need to protect its clients.
The appellate court’s majority ruled this week that the plaintiffs presented “genuine issues of material fact whether (1) reasonable security measures were known to (Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains) that would have prevented harm to the victims; and (2) (Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains) was sufficiently aware of the potential for criminal conduct against its clinics to prepare for the type of offenses committed by Dear. We agree.”
The clinic had developed active shooter procedures and must have realized the risk of violence at abortion clinics, the appeals court said.
The National Abortion Federation reports that at least eight abortion clinic workers have been murdered and clinics have been the target of nearly 7,000 incidents of arson, death threats, vandalism and other crimes since 1977.
Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains “asserts, and we agree, that landowners are not, and should not be, insurers of the safety of their invitees. But the Legislature has determined, by enacting the (Colorado’s Premises Liability Act), that landowners do have certain responsibilities to their invitees,” the court’s opinion says. “A jury may determine that (Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains) fulfilled those responsibilities.”
Judge John Webb dissented, saying the majority’s decision pushes the responsibilities of property owners under the law too far. “ … After all, should landowners be expected to build fortresses?” Webb asked in his dissenting opinion.
The court relieved the national Planned Parenthood organization of liability, instead focusing the question only on the Colorado Springs clinic.
Whitney Phillips, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, said in a statement, “At Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, the positive experience of our patients is a priority, and that, of course, includes the safety of our patients when they come to our health centers for reproductive care. We respectfully disagree with the decision released by the Colorado Court of Appeals, and will continue to review the opinion and determine our next steps.”
William Babich, a Denver attorney and co-chairman of the Premises Liability Committee of the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association, agreed with the appellate court’s majority opinion.
“The sad reality is that Planned Parenthood is a foreseeable target of fanatics, much like banks are a foreseeable target of robbers,” Babich said.
“While one might not think a movie theater needs special security, the same cannot be said for Planned Parenthood. This establishment was almost certainly not selected at random. The Court of Appeals decision appropriately allows the jury to determine whether Planned Parenthood breached its duty to provide adequate security in these circumstances, and determine whether that failure was a cause — along with the actions of Robert Dear — of the harms that resulted.”