Their sons and daughters died in the Stoneman Douglas massacre. They sued the Broward School Board, the sheriff and others for the loss of their children.
Now parents and other victims are being asked to turn over their psychiatric records to prove they suffered mental anguish over the tragedy.
The demand, contained in documents filed in lawsuits blaming the Broward school district for failing to identify and stop the threat posed by gunman Nikolas Cruz, has families of the victims enraged.
In formal court responses, School Board member Lori Alhadeff, whose daughter is one of those killed, called the demand “harassing, burdensome” and an invasion of privacy. Alhadeff was elected to the School Board after her daughter’s death.
At least a dozen other families also object, according to court records.
In most civil cases, plaintiffs prove their pain and suffering with testimony — their own, plus the testimony of friends and loved ones, said Robert Kelley, Alhadeff’s lawyer. Rarely is anyone asked or expected to submit mental health records to prove their heartbreak.
“I personally don’t think the records are relevant,” Kelley said. “I don’t think anyone is going to dispute that these families have suffered mental anguish.”
Cruz killed 17 people at the Parkland high school on Feb. 14, 2018, and wounded 17 more.
The School District said in a written response Oct. 1 that it “recognizes the sensitive nature of these records,” but insists they are necessary in a claim involving mental pain and suffering.
The question is one of about 75 asked of victims in a template that also includes demands for evidence of funeral expenses, accounts of every media interview victims have done and tax returns to show lost income.
Broward Circuit Judge Patti Englander Henning, at a hearing Thursday morning, will consider how much the victims must be forced to answer. Chief among those questions are whether the survivors have to disclose mental health treatment records documenting their grief.
The questions are part of a normal “discovery” process in legal cases, in which each side seeks evidence from the other to prove their claims. But in the case of the Parkland victims, the nearly 75 “interrogatories” come across to relatives as deeply insensitive.
“Providing proof of loss, while absolutely necessary in any wrongful death case, is like ripping open the scab again and again and again. It hurts,” said attorney David Brill, who represents three sets of parents and a surviving student.
Relatives of the dead are asked to “identify any permanent mental injuries” they are claiming, and whether in the 10 years prior to the massacre they ever sought psychiatric treatment and why.
The defendants also demanded the slain victims’ cellphone numbers, copies of death certificates and the names and business addresses of the health providers, including dentists, who provided care to the dead in the five years prior to the mass shooting incident.
The victims claimed the request was “harassing, irrelevant or overly broad," the filing states. But the district claims they are needed to understand the victims' lives before and after the tragedy.
School Board lawyer Eugene Pettis said the school board recognizes the sensitivity of the issue, but the district has a legal duty to make sure the plaintiffs prove their claims by a professional standard, not just through the testimony of family and friends.
“You always get the records,” he said. “If there are claims, you get the records to support those claims. It’s happened in every such case I’ve tried.”
The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018, was among the most horrific in U.S. history: 14 children and three educators died. Besides the 17 injured, many others at the school that day are suing for post traumatic stress.
Confronted with dozens of separate lawsuits against the school district, sheriff and others, the court consolidated all of the claims into one case and set about an orderly way for each side to obtain evidence. Hence the exhaustive questionnaire.
Victims of the tragedy already have a steep legal hurdle to overcome. Last month the Florida Supreme Court ruled that, for liability purposes, the tragedy is considered one event in the eyes of the law, capping the School District’s damages at $300,000 total.
The case is progressing, though. If a jury awards more, the victims will have to persuade the state Legislature to pass a bill to pay out more than the insurance policy allows.
©2020 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
Visit the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) at www.sun-sentinel.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.