Michigan judge rules Oxford school district has immunity, can’t be sued

DETROIT — The Oxford school district and its employees have government immunity and can’t be sued in the November 2021 mass shooting at Oxford High School that killed four students and injured seven others, an Oakland County judge ruled late Friday.

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Oakland County Circuit Judge Mary Ellen Brennan dismissed all Oxford governmental employees and entities from civil lawsuits relating to the Oxford High School shooting. She concluded that then-15-year-old shooter Ethan Crumbley was the most immediate and direct cause of the mass shooting and dismissed the Oakland County school district and its employees from civil lawsuits brought by Oxford victims and their families.

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Even if Oxford Community Schools and its employees were grossly negligent in their responses to Crumbley’s behavior, Brennan wrote that legal precedent dictated that “no reasonable trier of fact could conclude that any of the conduct of any of the individual Oxford Defendants was ‘the one most immediate, efficient, and direct cause of the injury or damage’ to the Plaintiffs.”

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In ruling that the victims’ claims are barred by governmental immunity, the judge said Crumbley’s act of firing the gun, rather than the alleged conduct of the defendants, was the “one most immediate, efficient and direct cause of injury or damage.”

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“Because it is undisputed that the school district was a government agency engaged in the exercise or discharge of a government function at all times relevant … the school district is immune,” Brennan wrote.

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The ruling is an initial victory for the school district, which had argued it had immunity under state law. The district couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Friday night.

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But it was a blow for the families of students Tate Myre and Justin Shilling who were killed in the attack and for families of four students who survived the attack. Attorney Ven Johnson, who represents those victims and their families, called it a terrible day for his clients, who feel the law has victimized them all over again.

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“They feel like the legal system has failed them,” Johnson said Friday night. “We talked about this ugly thing called government immunity from day one. You never think it’s going to happen to you because it’s so wrong and so unfair. When it does, they feel betrayed by the legal system.”

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The Detroit attorney argued in a statement: “We maintain that governmental immunity is wrong and unconstitutional, and the law should be changed immediately. We call on the Michigan Legislature to change this law now.”

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Lori Bourgeau and Andrea Jones, parent-leaders with the group Change 4 Oxford, also expressed disappointment.

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“If we have learned anything since this preventable tragedy occurred, it is that some schools will hide behind governmental immunity to protect themselves instead of our students and children. It is wrong that the Michigan Attorney General’s attempts to investigate and find the truth are so easily dismissed by a school district that has hired lawyers and PR firms, like a criminal defendant would,” they said in a statement Friday night.

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“As long as governmental immunity completely shields schools like Oxford, it will only serve to deny families transparency, justice, and accountability. Without real change, our schools’ incentive to truly improve safety policies will remain limited due to their ability to hide behind immunity when future tragedies occur. That is why legal limits on government immunity must be imposed on events like these.”

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Nearly a dozen lawsuits have been filed against the school and its officials since the November 2021 shooting, accusing school leaders of gross negligence. The lawsuits argue that school officials failed to take sufficient action to prevent the violence allegedly in the face of ample warning signs of the teen’s potential for violence in the lead-up to his deadly rampage.

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Johnson said he will appeal to the Michigan Court of Appeals, where he will argue that the increased burden of proof imposed on victims who have been injured by governmental employees, namely through gross negligence and being the proximate cause of the injury, violates equal protection under the law and deprives victims of their right to a jury trial.

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“Under the law, everyone should be treated the same. No one should have more rights than others just because they work for the government. If this shooting happened at a private school, this case would be sent to trial and none of these defenses would exist,” Johnson said.

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Johnson told The Detroit News on Friday there is no guarantee the Court of Appeals will hear the case because his clients have no automatic right of appeal under state law. He can file an appeal with the Michigan Supreme Court at a later time, but he said there is also no guarantee that court will hear the case either.

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Johnson is also representing victims’ families and survivors in cases filed in federal court in Detroit, but those cases involve federal claims, he said.

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Oxford families represented by other lawyers have claims before Detroit U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith, including attorney Geoffrey Fieger who filed a lawsuit on behalf of sisters Riley and Bella Franz, students at Oxford High who survived the shooting.

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A former Oxford school board member also was disappointed by the judge’s decision.

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“This ruling is very disappointing and goes to the very reasons why we resigned which I still can’t discuss. Everyone deserves the full truth,” said Korey Bailey, the board’s former treasurer, who was also referring to former school board President Tom Donnelly. “It may have influenced this ruling as we were deposed in this case and could not tell a full story.

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Donnelly and Bailey have been pushing the school board to release them from the threat of being sued if they broke the district’s attorney-client privilege by divulging what was discussed about the school shooting during closed sessions of the school board with the district’s attorney present.

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“It is a sad day for kids in our schools and those adults who want to keep them safe. The system let down the victims of the shooting by their failure to care for a student who was in serious need of help. We are suppose to ignore those facts so that the “system” in this case, Oxford Community Schools will be protected, rather than our kids.”

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The governmental immunity statute is a key hurdle for the plaintiffs in wrongful death cases that have accused school officials of gross negligence.

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Michigan governmental immunity law offers broad protections for officials accused of negligence for acts carried out during the course of their job, making it difficult for the state’s residents to sue public employees or agencies.

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In recent legal filings and in court last month, the school district’s attorney, Timothy Mullins, sought to have the cases thrown out, arguing the claims do not meet the liability standards needed to overcome the governmental immunity law because the teenage shooter, who has pleaded guilty to all charges in the attack, is the “proximate cause” of the students’ deaths.

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Mullins said Crumbley’s actions were “the most immediate” cause of injury and called the shooter’s actions the “ultimate legal breach of duty.”

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Crumbley pleaded guilty in October to all 24 criminal charges, including terrorism causing death and first-degree murder, which carry a sentence of up to life in prison. The teen’s parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley, are also facing charges of involuntary manslaughter. Crumbley and his parents have also been named in the lawsuits filed by the victims’ families.

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Johnson had pushed back by arguing the lawsuits met the burden to overcome the governmental immunity statute.

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(Detroit News staff writer Kayla Ruble contributed to this story.)

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this story was originally published March 3, 2023, 8:37 PM.