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Law Offices of Ronald W. Rutz
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May 17, 1999: Legal Issues with Columbine; Sovereignty of Will vs. Title

Q: What are your legal thoughts about Columbine?

A: Although I have had a number of requests to write a column about Columbine, I did not want to appear to be exploiting that very sad event. But many people are curious and keep asking. Viewing the civil side (not the possible criminal ramification), the picture is mixed. In fact, this is exactly the kind of fact pattern I gave as a final exam when I was a professor at the University of Alabama Law School.

Parents may be held liable for the acts of their children under various legal theories. In this case, there is a Colorado statute imposing strict liability on Mom and Dad for a child under 18 living at home who causes bodily injury or property damage. Whether that cause of action can be used here remains to be seen and I am told by several local attorneys that the amount of recovery for each cause of action is limited to $3500. Otherwise liability may be hard to impose using other theories. If liability is found, the assets of the parents and possibly (depending upon the coverage) a claim under the home owners policy would seem to be the only sources of revenue to satisfy any judgments.

Except under some theory that the school district was operating an unsafe building, the Colorado Governmental Immunity Law would probably block any suit against the school district. But even if the claimants were successful, the total monetary exposure would be capped at $250,000 for each personal award but no more than a total of $600,000 for all of the claims arising out of the tragedy.

In federal Court either the parents or the school district could be sued under various federal statutes or on various constitutional grounds. But according to several of my civil litigation attorney friends, the only theory they consider viable would be the Federal Civil Rights Acts. According to them, as a general legal standard our judicial circuit has held that schools do not have a constitutional duty to prevent students from harming one another. Thus, a successful suit faces many obstacles.

Creative litigators could weave a web of ingenious theories attempting to pull in certain movies, computer game makers, the police department, gun manufacturers, stores specializing in "weird" clothes and accessories, etc. And maybe a civil law suit would hit pay dirt. But it seems a long row to hoe and even after victory, available assets to satisfy claims may prove to be thin.

Now the foregoing is meant to be a very general review of some of the possible civil problems that a law suit may face and is not meant to be a precise examination of all of the legal and factual minutiae. But sadly, if the civil side of the law is meant to reimburse for loss or make one whole again for damage done, there may be no path to travel to accomplish totally those goals given our present alternatives.

Q: If I leave my house to you in my Will but hold title in joint tenancy with my wife, or if I name you in my Will to receive certain insurance proceeds but have my wife as the named beneficiary, who gets what?

A: Boy, I was expecting a fast, high, inside hard ball question from you but thanks for this slow, down the middle, marshmallow to hit.

Of course a beneficiary designation or joint tenancy takes priority over provisions in a Will, even if the item is specifically identified. Thus, your wife would inherit. BUT if she predeceases you and no one else is on the title in joint tenancy or no back up beneficiary is in place, then the Will controls.

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