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Parkland parents face uphill battle in wrongful death suit against FBI, shielded behind broad federal law

Skyler Swisher, Sun Sentinel on

Published in News & Features

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Even if the federal government screws up, that doesn't mean it has to pay up in court.

The FBI is facing a wrongful death lawsuit alleging the agency is liable for the 17 deaths in the Parkland school shooting because it mishandled tips and failed to stop the gunman.

The government's lawyers are trying to get the suit tossed.

They have a strong case, and Parkland parents battling the federal government in the courtroom will face an uphill climb, said Gregory Sisk, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and an expert in federal tort law.

"It is hard to sue the federal government and win unless you have something that falls into a conventional scenario like an automobile accident," he said.

Federal law offers broad protections that shield the FBI and other federal agencies from lawsuits alleging that governmental failures resulted in harm.

 

Fred and Jennifer Guttenberg and Philip and April Schentrup are seeking unspecified damages in lawsuits filed against the FBI. Both lost children in the Feb. 14, 2018, massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The FBI's errors aren't in dispute. The agency issued a statement shortly after the shooting, admitting it failed to follow "established protocol" by not fully investigating tips it received.

Whether the agency should be held liable for deaths that might have been prevented is being contested.

In the past, courts have ruled the FBI is protected from lawsuits because its employees exercise discretion in whether to investigate a tip -- even if those decisions are flawed. This "discretionary function exception" shields agencies from lawsuits arising from an employee's bad judgment.

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