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Suing The State Over Sandy Hook: Really?

For the last several years that I have been privileged to write this column I have endeavored to defend the integrity of the practice of law. I have tried to explain in layman’s terms the principles of law that guide trial lawyers. In particular, I have defended the plaintiff’s trial bar, especially against those who blame trial lawyers and injured patients for the spiraling costs of health care. But when a New Haven lawyer filed a notice of claim with the Office of the Claims Commissioner seeking to sue the State of Connecticut and the state Board of Education (BOE) even I have to cry out: really?

To digress momentarily, one cannot merely file a lawsuit against the State or its employees for civil wrongs. The doctrine of sovereign immunity prohibits such claims being filed in court unless the State has given permission to sue, either by the passage of legislation or through the Office of the Claims Commissioner. For example a law known as the highway statute establishes that the state may be sued for negligence in the maintenance of the public highways. In most other instances one seeking to sue must file a detailed notice of claim with the Claims Commissioner and obtain permission, after a hearing.

To the uninitiated it appears that this attorney has now started a lawsuit seeking 100 million dollars for one of the surviving children. He has not. To get to that point he has to convince the Commissioner that there has been a breach of duty owed by the State or its BOE to this child. To establish any claim for damages for negligence an attorney must establish that there was a duty owed, a breach of that duty and an injury that was reasonably foreseeable flowing from the breach of that duty.

When pressed for an explanation for the basis for the claim in a news interview this lawyer suggested that the state should have “armed” principals and teachers with mace that could fire 30′. Give me a break! Does this guy seriously think that a can of mace would have prevented this lunatic, Lanza, from blasting his way into this school? His claim suggests that there was a failure to have an adequate emergency plan in place. What an insult to the valiant teachers and staff that secured the safety of the majority of these children.

When I was in grammar school in the ’50’s we feared nuclear attack and practiced marching to the school basement and hiding under our desks. In this violent world our children and grandchildren inhabit our teachers practice lock down drills. In Sandy Hook that practice saved lives.

Getting back to the law of negligence, clearly our BOE’s have a duty to protect our children. When they installed a lock and buzzer on the school entry way Newtown was endeavoring to protect its children from strangers entering. Nothing could have ever made the madman, Lanza’s actions reasonably foreseeable, especially in a quiet suburban town like Newtown.

So while parents mourn their lost babies, and the rest of the country pays homage to the little ones and their heroic teachers, one lawyer thinks that a lawsuit is appropriate. This is to take nothing away from the unnamed child plaintiff, Jill Doe, or her parents. Like all of the children who were fortunate to have been saved from the massacre, Jill Doe should not have to bear the emotional scars that Lanza, alone has created. Is the purpose really to compensate this little girl, or an attempt to grab a sensational headline?

Like so many of my colleagues who have read of this, today I am embarrassed to say I am a trial lawyer.

Rich Meehan