Why Are There Lawsuits After the Jacksonville, FL Madden Shooting?

Michael GrossmanAugust 31, 2018 7 minutes

Very few people are likely surprised that news reports surfaced that one of the victims of Sunday's shooting at a Madden NFL 19 tournament retained an attorney who plans to file a lawsuit on their client's behalf.

For those who didn't hear what happened, here's a quick recap. A 24-year-old competitor lost in a video game tournament sponsored by EA for its game Madden NFL 19. According to reports, after losing, the competitor retrieved a firearm from his car, returned to the tournament site and opened fire on fellow competitors. As a result, Eli Clayton, 22, and Taylor Robertson, 27, lost their lives, while another 11 people sustained injuries. The gunman also died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

There's likely a significant number of people out there wondering, "If the gunman killed himself, who is there left to sue?" Others might think that holding anyone besides the shooter responsible for this shooting is a miscarriage of justice, an attempt to blame someone else for a shooter's evil behavior. The truth is that there is a legitimate legal controversy and here's how it works.

What Area of the Law Likely Covers the Florida Madden Tournament Shooting?

The only thing we know about any potential lawsuits is that one law firm, on behalf of one of the victims, issued a statement that it is their intention to file suit. They didn't mention who the targets of the suit will be, or on what grounds intend to sue, just that it's going to happen. Given the information that is already available to the public, I think it's pretty easy to read the tea leaves and discern not only the grounds for suing, the targets of the lawsuit, but also some of the issues that will come up in any litigation.

First, this will likely be a case based in an area of the law known as premises liability. Premises liability law concerns the duty that property owners and event organizers have to safeguard people on a property or at an event from reasonably foreseeable harm. It generally relates to dangerous conditions on a property that can injure or kill people.

A component of premises liability is a duty to provide adequate security. For instance, if Grossman Law Offices were to organize a conference for personal injury attorneys and rent out a hotel ballroom for the event, the firm would take on duties to mitigate any reasonable threats against that conference. Typically, attorneys gathering to talk with one another about the law doesn't draw much attention or scrutiny. Further, it's hard to imagine a situation where violence is likely to occur. Therefore, the amount of security that the firm would have to provide would be minimal.

However, if we knew that certain attorneys that were invited to the event had a history of violence, or if we received threats that someone was going to attack our gathering, one could make a compelling case that our firm would have a duty to provide sufficient security to safeguard our guests from known dangers. In short, there's no hard and fast rule about how much security a property owner or event organizer has to provide, it just has to be equal to any reasonably foreseeable threats.

The most likely basis for a lawsuit stemming from the "Madden NFL 19" shooting is a failure to provide adequate security. Knowing this, we can surmise the potential targets of any litigation.

Who Is Likely to Be Sued for the Jacksonville Madden Tournament Shooting?

First, it's still too early to determine whether or not the security at the Jacksonville Madden tournament was adequate. However, if the most likely legal argument is that someone failed to provide adequate security, then we have to know who potentially had a duty to provide that security. The answer is not as clear as one might think.

Obviously, the property owners and tenants would be the first suspects. The event took place at GLHF Game Bar, located in a shopping center on the river in Jacksonville. Both the game bar and the shopping center have a duty to provide protection for patrons against common threats. Obviously, whether a shooter with a gun is a common threat is debatable. At the same time, this was an advertised event that attracted players from all over the east coast and spectators. The sheer increase in the number of people also increases the need for heightened security.

Another possible target of a the lawsuit is Electronic Arts (EA), the sponsor, organizer, and sanctioning body for the tournament. They're the ones who put up the $5,000 prize as well as an invitation to a Las Vegas tournament with a $125,000 prize for the winner of the Jacksonville tournament. In addition, news also broke today that EA cancelled 3 upcoming "Madden NFL 19" qualifying tournaments similar to the one where this shooting took place. The reason that EA cited for the cancellation was that the company initiated a review of safety procedures at these events.

This move isn't just common sense: it also strikes me as a way of heading off any allegations that EA security measures were inadequate (I'll explain how that works later). In short, any combination of these 3 actors may find themselves involved in the imminent legislation. Is that fair? What are the chances that such a suit could succeed?

What Legal Questions Will the Jacksonville Madden Shooting Raise?

A large number of people are likely to believe that while it's tragic that people were killed or injured, a lawsuit attempts to punish the property holders and event organizers for the actions of the shooter. While this view will probably be common, it's not quite legally correct. Attorneys for the victims will not seek to blame EA or anyone else accountable for the shooter's actions, instead they'll argue that they didn't take reasonable steps to prevent the shooter from accessing the space where the shooting occurred and this failure led to the deaths and injuries.

Victims attorneys have to prove that EA, the property owners, or both should have foreseen the potential for violence and that they didn't take adequate steps to safeguard tournament attendees from it. Is this a winning argument? Perhaps. Most studies of mass shooters show that generally shooters surrender or kill themselves when confronted by force. This means an argument exists that the absence of that force (if it was absent, it's still too early to know) could be the cause of the deaths and injuries at the Madden tournament.

Some people will rightly point out that no one can protect against every potential bad actor. Crazy people do crazy things and is it really reasonable to anticipate that someone might try to shoot up a video game tournament? This question will likely be at the heart of the legal controversy in this case, since the law doesn't hold people accountable for things that a reasonable person couldn't foresee.

To my knowledge, this is the first major shooting incident at a video game tournament. That has the potential to be a very powerful defense for the EA and the property owners. It's usually difficult, if not impossible, to foresee something that never occurred in the past, if only because it's not even on someone's radar.

While the absence of prior video game shootings presents an obstacle to a failure to provide adequate security claim, it isn't an insurmountable one. Our common law tradition doesn't depend on an exact scenario occurring in the past to determine what reasonable people should foresee. It's a slightly different area of the law, but I doubt the first person to injure someone with a car got off scot-free, since people were getting run over by carriages for centuries, which are similar enough to cars.

The question then becomes are there enough potentially dangerous situations that are similar enough to a video game tournament with a cash prize that organizers should have foreseen a potential shooting? The answer is likely a matter of opinion.

Before we can determine whether or not there is a similar enough situation that should have signaled that a video game tournament host or organizer could have foreseen a shooter, it's important to look at what defined this particular tournament. Let's leave video games out of the equation for a second and instead focus on the fact that any tournament is a competition. It's not a stretch to suggest that any time people compete in a public forum, with a crowd of onlookers, there is the potential for tempers to flare when someone loses. I don't meant to argue that the local YMCA needs armed guards when they have a ping-pong tournament, but it is one factor to consider.

Perhaps the most important consideration is that this particular Madden tournament offered a $5,000 cash prize to the winner. In a country where more than half of the population doesn't have $5,000 in their bank accounts, that's a fairly significant amount of money. Is there anywhere else with significant sums of money can be won in a competitive environment? One place immediately jumps to mind, casinos.

As a society, we've known that as long as people have bet significant amounts of money, that violence sometimes results when a person loses. That's why we restrict who we allow to operate gaming operations (if not outright ban them, like Texas does) and then expect them to provide a level of security found in few other public places.

Is the level of protection that a casino provides a good measuring stick for how much security should have been present at the Jacksonville, Fl Madden tournament? Not necessarily. It's certainly not an apples to apples comparison, but illustrates that when a large sum of money is contested in a competitive environment, the level of security should increase.

Nothing illustrates that EA and the property owners may be more culpable than most people might think than EA's decision to cancel 3 upcoming Madden tournaments, while the company reviews security. This decision bolsters both interpretations of the controversy. EA can still argue that the shooting was the first of its kind and heightens their duty to provide security against shooters at future tournaments. In turn, the advocates for victims of the Jacksonville shooting would likely counter that the move indicates that security was lacking at that event and EA could have done more to ensure everyone's safety.

Regardless of which argument one chooses to subscribe to, it's clear that clever attorneys aren't trying to blame EA and property owners for the shooter's actions, but credibly believe that these groups failed in a duty that was owed to the injured and the deceased. It's still too early to know which way the evidence leans, but it's clear that a genuine controversy exists.

And when a controversy of this magnitude occurs, it's only natural that it ends up in court. Rather than waiting for a legislature to make a "Video Game Shooting Liability Law" in each state, our legal system has the flexibility to determine whether or not an organizer or property owner has some responsibility for an incident, like the one that took place at the Jacksonville Madden tournament, by applying laws that pertain to similar situations.

Who gets to decide if those laws actually apply to the fact of what took place in Jacksonville, Florida? A jury of local citizens listens to all of the evidence and arguments, then renders their judgement. After an incident where both sides have plausible arguments in their favor, that's the most fair way to decide. And that's why people are filing lawsuits after the Jacksonville Madden tournament shooting.