Victims of mass shootings in the United States often win little or no damages from perpetrators but the Las Vegas massacre may be different because the shooter is thought to have been a wealthy man, lawyers said.
While there are often few assets to collect from the young men who typically carry out these killings, Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock, 64, is thought to have had multi-million-dollar investments in buildings across Texas and California.
Paddock's estate has become a target for claimants in a case where victims and their families face an uphill battle holding liable the hotel and musical festival where the shooting rampage took place.
"It definitely depends on the assets in the estate whether you pursue that claim," said Theida Salazar, a Los Angeles attorney who represented one of the victim's families in the 2015 shooting in San Bernadino, California.
Paddock killed 58 people and injured hundreds more on Oct. 1 when he fired into the crowd gathered for a country music festival from his 32nd-floor suite at the Las Vegas Mandalay Bay hotel. The gunman killed himself before he could be apprehended.
His estate was named as a defendant in a complaint filed last week in Nevada state court. Attorneys who brought that action said they are planning to file more lawsuits.
Plaintiff Paige Gasper, who was wounded in the shooting, accused Paddock of battery and the intentional infliction of emotional distress. She also sued MGM Resorts International , the owner of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino; event organizer Live Nation Entertainment and the maker of a gun accessory Paddock used, Slide Fire Solution.
Another lawsuit on behalf of a California woman, Andrea Castilla, killed in the shooting was filed on Tuesday against the same defendants.
Eric Paddock, the shooter's brother, did not respond to a request for comment, but he previously told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that he was administering his brother's estate for the benefit of his victims.
MGM and Live Nation declined to comment on pending litigation. Slide Fire never responded to a request for comment.
LIABILITY BEYOND QUESTION
Legal experts said it was hard to hold premises and firearms manufacturers responsible for mass shootings.
Victor Schwartz, an attorney specializing in injury cases, said victims suing the Las Vegas hotel and event organizer would have to show the latter could have foreseen and taken steps to prevent the shooting. That would be difficult for such an extreme event, he said.
At the same time, Federal law specifically protects the makers of guns and ammunition from liability for the criminal use of their products.
Though Paddock's estate will likely not be able to pay nearly as much as a large corporate defendant could, and individual payouts could be small given the number of victims, his liability for the shooting is beyond question.
Shooting victims would have the same claim on Paddock's estate as those trying to collect unpaid bills, said Mark Solomon, a Las Vegas estate lawyer. Certain claims, such as unpaid taxes or an outstanding mortgage, would have higher priority.
However, among victims, the families of those killed would receive the highest amounts and those who suffered emotional distress and no physical harm would get the least, Solomon said.
Paddock's heirs would not receive anything unless all creditors had been paid. Given the number of victims, there is unlikely to be anything left, legal experts said.
Any money Paddock gave away just before the shooting, like the $100,000 he is believed to have sent to his girlfriend Marilou Danley in the Philippines, might also be clawed back as a "fraudulent conveyance," said Elizabeth Carter, an estate law professor at Louisiana State University.
Though recovery from shooters has been rare, victims have received substantial payments from younger shooters' parents, who have been accused of insufficiently monitoring their children or failing to prevent them from accessing firearms.
The parents of the two teenagers who committed the 1999 Columbine high school shooting settled with most of the victims' families for $1.6 million in 2001. (Reporting by Tina Bellon; Editing by Anthony Lin and Andrew Hay)