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Settlement Falls Through in Parkland School Shooting Negligence Lawsuit, Sending it to Trial 

The families of school shooting victims and the U.S. Department of Justice failed to finalize a settlement this week, so a lawsuit alleging the U.S. government's inaction enabled the 2018 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, will be fought out in court.

The parties reached a tentative settlement agreement in late November, and they informed the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Florida that they only needed to “finalize additional details” before finalizing the agreement. Once finalized, the proposed $127.5 million settlement would have required final approval from the U.S. Department of Justice before the case could be dismissed.

A final settlement was to have been reached by 20 December.

On 17 December, counsel for the plaintiffs asked for additional time—until at least 21 January 2022—to respond to parties who would be impacted by the settlement. The request for the continuance noted that the parties had not finished determining how to parcel out the settlement funds. At the beginning of December, another group of plaintiffs asked for additional time, given the upcoming holidays, to respond to the government’s 1 December request that the plaintiffs make themselves available to be deposed and provide reports of expert medical witnesses as part of finalizing the settlement agreement. 

Instead, Judge William Dimitrouleas refused to grant the extension, writing that he doubted the solidity of the settlement agreement.

“There are approximately 40 separate cases, with separate plaintiffs,” Dimitrouleas wrote. “It is now clear that there is not, nor has there ever been, an agreement between each plaintiff and the…United States over a settlement amount to end that plaintiff’s case.” 

The judge also noted that the amount in the tentative agreement, although initially said to address all the cases against the U.S. government in this matter and usually the most important aspect of a settlement, could only “be considered a partial settlement at best.”

Dimitrouleas ordered a bench trial for 28 February 2022 instead of giving the parties additional time to finalize the settlement.

The plaintiffs—families of the victims of the school shooting—claim that people who personally knew or knew about the shooter, Nikolas Cruz, warned the FBI about Cruz’s ability and intention to carry out an attack. A little more than one month after the warning was submitted to the FBI’s tip line, Cruz killed 17 people at his former high school on 14 February 2018, making it the deadliest school shooting since the 1999 attack at Columbine High School.

In one of the suits, the plaintiffs pointed out that for years before the shooting Cruz exhibited violent behavior and warnings about him were sent to local law enforcement. The suit also noted that more than two years before the attack, Cruz was posting “disturbing and threatening content on social media,” including posts featuring firearms, knives, ammunition, and at least one comment where he said he planned to become “a professional school shooter.”

The comment was reported to the FBI, which, according to the suit, investigated the matter and closed its file on it in October 2017.

On 5 January 2018, someone only identified as “a person close to Cruz” used the FBI’s tip line to report concerns about Cruz, who was exhibiting violent, murderous, and suicidal behavior and intentions. The individual also provided information about his social media accounts and posts. The person “was specific about the way she expected Cruz to explode—he was going to shoot up a school,” according to the lawsuit.

The FBI, however, neglected to take appropriate steps in response to the January call, including failing to send the information to the Miami, Florida, field office and to Parkland law enforcement. Lastly, the Bureau did not inform the high school about the threat.

In both statements to the families of the victims and the public, the FBI admitted it violated its own protocols in its response to information about Cruz before the shooting. (Frederic and Jennifer Guttenberg v. the United States of America, U.S. District Court Southern District of Florida, No. 18-cv-62758, 2021)