Dark Knight Lawsuits, Surveillance and Freedom

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Photo by: David Levy

Survivors of the Aurora, Colorado “The Dark Knight Rises” theater shooting have filed suit in the U.S. District Court of Colorado against the theater owner.  In two lawsuits filed in federal court on September 21, 2012, the plaintiffs allege that the theater, Cinemark USA negligently failed to provide adequate security.  According to the plaintiffs, the theater should have taken more measures to prevent James Holmes from killing twelve people, and wounding fifty-eight others.

Here are some of the measures the theater should have taken, according to the plaintiffs:

Employ and have present security guards (including, but not limited to, off-duty law enforcement officers);

Provide reasonable protection against surreptitious, unauthorized entry into the theater;

Erect door entry security devices, one-way security doors, automatic locking doors, alarms, warning signals;

Develop and institute emergency or first-aid response and evacuation plans and procedures;

Train employees on the use of surveillance devices, monitors, cameras and human monitoring procedures.

There are a number of problems, both practical and philosophical, with the measures the plaintiffs would have the theater (and by extension, all theaters) follow.

First, it would cost a prohibitive amount of money for all American theaters to provide the heightened security as outlined above.  Theater owners would have to eat the increased costs or pass the costs down to consumers.  Ensuring perfect safety is, by its very nature, expensive.

Photo by: E. L. Farris
U. S. Supreme Court

Second, at what price comes freedom?  While some would argue that there is no price too great to pay to save a human life, I think that the increasing use of surveillance cameras poses an unfortunate and in some cases unacceptable threat to our freedom.  I don’t exactly know what the balance should be between security and freedom, and for sure, a theater is a public place where one should not have an expectation of privacy.  Like many Americans, I became more accepting after 9/11 of public surveillance.  After all, what we do in public is by definition not private.

And yet, part of me shivers at the implication of constant and ever-broadening spying on our everyday activities.  I imagine that more and more of my life will become recorded somewhere, by someone.  As our expectation of privacy erodes, what will replace it?  An all powerful government?

Third, will increased security stop a determined mass murderer?  Surveillance, awareness and security measures have increased over the past century.  So too have acts of private (as opposed to governmentally-sponsored) terrorism.  In a free society, sociopaths like James Holmes will find a way to kill innocent people.  Is the cost of saving lives worth the cost of depriving us of our expectation of privacy and even of our freedom?

After all, when the state records our every action, it also limits our freedom to act and derails the boundary that protects an individual’s freedom to act unimpeded by state action.  And would turning our country into a police state truly deter serial murderers?  Or would it merely give control of the weapons to a centralized dictator, who could kill the innocent with the legal sanction of the state?

What are your thoughts? Does increased surveillance curb our freedom, or merely decrease a criminal’s ability to murder innocent people?

30 Comments on “Dark Knight Lawsuits, Surveillance and Freedom

  1. What happened was horrible and beyond comprehension. I feel that nothing would could have prevented what happened except if the shooter, James would have decided not to do what he did. The theater could have had all that security stuff. But why would it? There was previously no need to. And I find it extremely unfair that the theater is being sued.
    Anyway not what you asked but these are my feelings.

  2. El, great post and I think you’ve raised some very valid points here. I think time and efforts have shown that if an individual or group is determined to do harm to an individual or group, they will find a way regardless of security measures. I also agree that it is unreasonable to expect businesses to anticipate and prepare for all potential security violations and threats to their patrons. After all, who would have ever predicted planes would one day be used as weapons of mass destruction? And, I am very opposed to a “nanny state” and feel our courts are burdened by far too many frivolous lawsuits.

    However, I believe this is a case where proximate cause is not difficult to establish and I believe we must hold businesses accountable for their actions or lack thereof, especially where potential risks are foreseeable and reasonable safety measures are neglected. The theater owners could certainly not predict the tragedy created by James Holmes, but they should have anticipated the need for extra security at the midnight showing of a highly anticipated, sold-out show when their theaters had unsecured doors. Holmes was able to re-enter the theater through the side exit door after having propped it open to retrieve his firearms from his vehicle. No alarm sounded. No security patrol or other employee checked or shut the door. Whether it was Holmes or (as an example) a group of 30 friends of a sole ticket buyer that “slipped in” creating a potential fire or “brawl” hazard in a sold out theater, the theater is negligent for not securing access to their premises. In providing appropriate security for a case like this, there would be no violation of privacy rights. Doors are simply secured. It likely would not have caused a significant or any increase in operating expenses. It is not a violation of privacy to ask a patron to show their ticket stub to regain entry after leaving through a side door, or perhaps even implement a “hand stamp” procedure for those that need to step out for whatever reason. Providing reasonable safety to the patrons is a cost of doing business and, as a movie goer, I have reasonable expectations of personal safety as I sit in the theater. I expect lights won’t fall on my head, the camera booth won’t collapse behind me, the sprinkler system will work in the event of a fire, and that reasonable measures have been taken to control access to the theater, even if it means giving up a bit of my privacy and entering through a metal detector in the future.

    • Excellent points, my friend–thank you! You know what that reminds me of? My husband told me about a time he was queuing up to enter a British museum. Everyone had to submit to a bag search, and some people were frisked. A man commented, “I’d rather be frisked a thousand times than be blown up once.” It’s a hard one to figure out as far as I’m concerned–this balance between safety/security and privacy/freedom.

  3. Why just movie theaters? Because this tragedy just so happened to occur in one THIS TIME. What about coffee shops? Your local mechanic’s? Why not clothing stores – some nut job killed people at a Lane Bryant a couple of years ago. Should all clothing stores be forced to have security, or just the plus-size places?

    This craziness can happen anywhere – are we supposed to have armed security and monitored cameras everywhere?

    This kind of lawsuit is why insurance rates keep going up and up. I cannot understand when someone dies and their families first instinct is to sue somebody. The person responsible for this is the guy who pulled the trigger. Period.

    • Hey Peg. Yep, I’m right with you. I think this is a frivolous lawsuit. And It’s sad that folks move right to litigation, as if that will somehow provide closure. Lawsuits just bring more pain to the survivors. I pray their lawsuit gets tossed and that the survivors find the peace that eludes them.

  4. Pegoleg hit the same point I would make. We can expect a reasonable level of security but to mandate extreme security measures in every possible environment that MIGHT be a location for a violent act (meaning ALL PLACES) then we cross way over the line and head toward police state. “Do you have clearance to be at the mall? Show me your papers.”

    Even without the personal intrusion I can imagine legislation leading to a flight attendant like speech at the beginning of every movie to cover the liability of every movie theater (eventually no one will pay attention anyway), a waiver requirement before you enter the mall, metal detectors at places of business…of wait, we already have that. Slip sliding away….

    The movie theater was negligent with its door, that’s it. The perpetrator would have found another way if the door had not been an option. Other than that they did their job as best as they could in a rare and serious event.

    • Yes, exactly what I think Kelly. And yes, they screwed up with the door . . . but they didn’t make that sick man pull the trigger, nor should they have foreseen that as a reasonable outcome. We should not be able to foresee the evil acts of a madman.

  5. I tend to agree with what you, Peg and others have said, El… reasonable safety precautions should be expected… but at some point (even with privacy issues aside) it’s just far too big / elaborate / expensive / etc. to be sustainable. The nightmare those folks went through is truly unimaginable… but the ‘measures’ included in that list just seem completely unrealistic to me. On many levels.

    • Yep, amen Spilled Ink. The hell those people went through really is unimaginable, and I am so very sad for them all.

      Gosh. The lawsuits — I don’t think they will help prevent another shooting. It’s really hard to stop a sociopath or psychopath!

  6. Perhaps gun laws that keep them out of the hands of crazy people. Maybe reasonable restrictions on purchasing amunition. Perhaps gun registration.

    Nah. Let’s just see where it happens next. And then we will rub our hands, say “tisk, tisk” and forget about it.

    The points made that only the shooter is responsible are correct and incorrect. Our laws don’t allow us to help people in trouble, and they don’t keep them from getting (and using) weapons. They should do both.

    • Aww, but how about the argument that we need to put guns in the hands of the law-abiding, sane folks to prevent this sort of sick psycho? I’m in the middle when it comes to gun control. I don’t own guns but I think folks should be able to own them within reason.

      Good point re helping folks with mental illness.

      All in all, I don’t think responsibility or blame should be assigned from the shooter to all of the people who could have stopped him from pulling the trigger–not in a legal sense, for sure.

      Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful response! I thought it over last night, and I’m still not sure what I think about gun control. That’s a hard one for me.

      • You’re not alone. It’s a hard one for the country too.

        I agree that law abiding folks should be able to have guns. But you have to register your car, your dog. Why not your gun? And why would anyone need that much ammo? It’s common sense to me to have reasonable gun laws. That’s not the same as taking them away from folks.

        Damn, that soapbox creeps up on me.

  7. I think extra precautions at a midnight showing might be reasonable, but the lawsuit goes to far. The reality is the shooter was responsible, not the theater. Our pervasive love affair with guns and our reluctance to take seriously the need to reasonably restrict access is responsible.

    Personally, I think they should file suit against the US Government and the NRA. These are the two entities that are responsible for the shooter having access to the number of guns and the amount of ammunition.

    It is not the theater, or the theater owner. Why do we time and again blame the business for the acts of individuals outside of their control?

    • Hey my friend! Love your thoughts above.

      Yes, I agree the shooter is responsible.

      I’m not sure how I feel about gun control laws (please see my comments above to Elyse). I’m middle of the road on guns. I think the sane citizens should be allowed to own them, but there should be limits. For sure.

      And suing the government would just screw us taxpayers.

      Yep–don’t blame anyone other than the shooter. That said, we need to figure out how to reduce violence and stop the mentally ill or just plain sick bastards from taking their sickness out on everyone else!

      • I am also in the middle on gun ownership. I don’t want to stop sane and reasonable people from owning guns. On the other hand, I don’t believe anyone needs to own an arsenal. The second amendment doesn’t say stock up for the next zombie invasion, it says ‘well regulated’ militia. That is the part everyone seems to miss, that ‘well regulated’ part.

        I agree, suing the government is going overboard. But honestly everyone is so afraid of the NRA, eventually someone has to stand up and demand attention to the issue. We really do have to draw attention to the truly terrible violence in our streets. If you look across the world landscape, I think we are the worst ‘civilized’ nation in the world, except those that are experiencing civil wars. That should say something to us.

  8. The families and friends of loved ones so cruelly taken in that cinema that terrible night, are in a very fragile state of grief, and any lawyer worth their salt should do the right thing and not go any further with this suit, and not take advantage of their grief, which will include anger as one of the emotions they are feeling right now. A lawsuit will not help them or others in the future. If someone who is in some deep mentally disturbed state, wants to kill people with weapons, such as guns etc, they will find a way! I agree with the comments on here, how could that cinema or anyone come to that matter, foresee this kind of tragedy? Nobody expected those terrorists to take over planes and crash them into buildings on 9/11! but they did! I do agree that people should expect to have their basic safety taken into consideration, like having fire alarms and adequate safety procedures in place in the event of a fire, and to know the building will not collapse on them, but to expect a cinema, shop etc to provide security measures for such an event, is just not realistic! You cannot man a cinema or shop with armed guards, as that is what they would need to protect against this kind of attack, he had guns, and clearly very intent on using them, if the doors had been locked on the side, and he had, had to use the front entrance, would it have stopped him? I’m not so sure! It’s unbelievably tragic and I cannot begin to imagine the pain and the heartache those people must be going through right now, and what they need is a massive amount of support and a system that will be there for them when they need it, not a lawsuit against someone who could not have predicted this kind of tragedy, any more than they could have or anyone come to that matter! the attacker was mentally disturbed and maybe the signs should have been picked up by the people close to him, perhaps?? who knows! Also maybe if there is to be any kind of law suit, perhaps the gun laws need to be looked at again?? then again, if someone wants to get hold of a gun, they would do it, but maybe if it was made a little more difficult and more security measures in purchasing guns were to be put in place, it could serve against a lot of gun crime? Maybe I’m being a little unrealistic myself, I just feel sadness for the victims and their loved ones.

    • Amen Kelly! I hope this lawsuit gets tossed on grounds of frivolity. For sure the theater could have done better but the legal test requires that the outcome be reasonably foreseeable. For sure, psychotic behavior is not–I hope–reasonably foreseeable.

      It really is terribly tragic. I agree 100%.

  9. Why isn’t there more outrage over the seriously overlooked mental health of the perpetrator of this heinous act? I agree with you El. There is enough surveillance on Americans. We need more access to good mental health diagnosis and care for those with serious disorders.

  10. I think there are certain measures that could be taken like having a theater employee check the exit doors every 15-30 minutes to make sure no one can re-enter the theater through the back doors. That wouldn’t require hiring anyone or be that costly imho. But if someone is determined to do harm, they will find a way through any security measures. It’s unfortunate. But there is no way to guard against all possibilities.

    • Hello Kourtney! Well-said. There is no doubt that the theater made some mistakes . . . but the issue from a legal standpoint was whether those mistakes caused the tragic outcome . . . and whether his actions were reasonably foreseeable. Thanks for stopping in!

  11. I don’t mind increased surveillance at all if it helps save the public from injuries and death. One potential risk I see is surveillance stimulating more fear. If we were to walk into a building, for example, and pass security guards with loaded guns and dozens of cameras, fear could spread like a virus, and potentially draw violence. Whatever is the most effective option, I’m all for it. With varying opinions, it sure is tough to know what that is—much less to please everyone.

    • Hello August! Good to see you. That reminds me of a story my husband told me, about a time he was lined up to see an exhibit at a British museum. The old guy behind him remarked, “I’d rather get frisked a hundred times than get blown up once.” I have no retort to that, lol!

  12. I live in Israel. We have security everywhere. When I say everywhere I mean supermarkets, restaurants, train and bus stations, malls, movie theaters, museums – everywhere. While I can’t say I love the fact that we are in a constant state of war, I do feel very safe going about my daily business knowing that there are people at every corner who are there to protect me. Most people don’t feel that their freedom is compromised because of surveillance. I don’t think the United States should have as tight security as we do here but I do think that security cameras, guards and some bag checking is just another way of keeping people safe and not a threat to basic rights. I’m not addressing this specific situation and my heart goes out to those who’s lives were changed. I’m just weighing in on the idea of security in public places.

    • That’s an excellent point. I never thought of it from the perspective of a country that is surrounded by threats on all sides. Thank you.