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Lawsuit against Parkland school deputy over 2018 massacre can go to trial, judge rules

Judge Carol-Lisa Phillips said a jury should decide whether former Deputy Scot Peterson displayed a “wanton and willful disregard” for students’ safety when he didn’t confront the shooter during the attack

School Shooting Florida Lawsuit

FILE - Former Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School School Resource Officer Scot Peterson sits at the defense table during his trial at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Friday, June 23, 2023. A lawsuit filed by the families of the 17 killed in the 2018 Parkland, Fla., school massacre and survivors against Peterson, who was on campus, can go forward, Circuit Judge Carol-Lisa Phillips ruled Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024, rejecting his motion to dismiss the case before trial. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, Pool, File)

Amy Beth Bennett/AP

By Terry Spencer
Associated Press

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — A lawsuit filed by families of the 17 people killed and other victims of the Parkland, Florida, school massacre against a former sheriff’s deputy who failed to intervene can go forward, a judge ruled, rejecting his motion to dismiss the case before trial.

Circuit Judge Carol-Lisa Phillips, in a ruling posted Wednesday, said a jury should decide whether fired Broward County Deputy Scot Peterson displayed a “wanton and willful disregard” for the students’ and teachers’ safety when he failed to confront the shooter during the six-minute attack inside a classroom building at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Peterson has insisted he didn’t know where the shots were coming from and was acquitted last year of criminal charges, but the level of proof required in a lawsuit is significantly lower. The families, who have accused Peterson of cowardice, are seeking an unspecified amount from Peterson and the Broward Sheriff’s Office, which did not argue for dismissal. Phillips hopes to begin the trial sometime this year.

“A reasonable trier of fact could find that the deputy’s failure to confront the shooter, and failure to take any action to fulfill his alleged duty of protecting the students and teachers, while choosing to remain outside in a protected location to ensure his own safety constituted a conscious and indifference to consequences” to those inside, Phillips wrote in the ruling dated Tuesday.

David Brill, a lead lawyer for the families and survivors, said in an email Wednesday that evidence supports her ruling.

“Her Honor read all of the filings that the parties submitted, gave the parties all of the time that they needed for argument and was extraordinarily attentive throughout, and applied the law to the evidence of Peterson’s willful and wanton disregard for the lives of the students and staff at (Stoneman Douglas) – evidence which was, frankly, compelling,” he said.

Peterson’s attorneys did not immediately respond to a phone call and email seeking comment.

At a hearing last month, Peterson attorney Michael Piper argued that his client had no legal duty to confront shooter Nikolas Cruz during the Feb. 14, 2018, massacre. Piper cited appellate court cases that say police officers don’t have a legal obligation to protect others from third-party harm and cannot be sued for decisions they make during a crisis.

“There is a difference between legal duty and what I guess I’ll call societal expectations,” Piper argued then. All the public will hear is that Peterson was in uniform and had a gun, he said, yet “when faced with this murderous rampage going on in this three-story building, he doesn’t have a duty to stop it?”

“People are outraged” that a law enforcement officer doesn’t have such a duty, but “yes, that is exactly what we are saying. That is exactly what the law is.”

But Phillips, in her ruling, said the extent of this officer’s duty is also something for the jury to decide, saying there is a “genuine dispute” over whether Peterson had a “special relationship with students, teachers and administration” that went beyond what law enforcement officers typically have with the public.

The families and survivors have already settled claims with the FBI — whose agents failed to investigate a warning about Cruz — and the Broward school district for a combined $153 million.

Peterson, the first U.S. police officer to be charged criminally with failing to act during a school shooting, was acquitted of child neglect in June. Legal experts said the Florida law that prosecutors applied wasn’t written to address Peterson’s actions.

Security videos played during that trial show that 36 seconds after Cruz’s attack began, Peterson left his office in the administration building, about 100 yards (92 meters) away, and jumped into a cart with two unarmed civilian security guards. They arrived a minute later at the three-story classroom building and Peterson got out near the east doorway to the first-floor hallway.

Cruz was at the hallway’s opposite end, firing his AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle.

Peterson, who was not wearing a bullet-resistant vest, didn’t open the door. Instead, he took cover 75 feet (23 meters) away in the alcove of a neighboring building, his gun still drawn. He stayed there for 40 minutes, long after the shooting ended and other police officers had stormed inside.

For nearly three decades, Peterson worked at schools, including nine years at Stoneman Douglas. He retired shortly after the shooting and was then fired retroactively.

Cruz, 25, pleaded guilty to the shootings in 2021. In a 2022 penalty trial, the jury could not unanimously agree that Cruz deserved the death penalty and he was then sentenced to life in prison. Florida subsequently changed its death penalty law so that only an 8-4 vote is required for a judge to sentence a convicted murderer to death.