CENTENNIAL, Colo. – A verdict saying a Colorado movie theatre could not have safeguarded against a shooting that left 12 people dead likely prevented a major shift in how people go to the movies by keeping the onus on the killer, rather than the public venue he chose to attack.
Six jurors concluded Thursday that Cinemark was not liable for the 2012 rampage, quickly rejecting victims’ arguments that, in an age of mass shootings, the theatre should have foreseen the possibility of violence at a crowded midnight premiere of a Batman film.
Several survivors and families of the dead had sued the nation’s third-largest theatre chain, saying the suburban Denver theatre should have had armed guards at the summer blockbuster. There also was no silent alarm that would have sounded when James Holmes slipped into an auditorium and started shooting.
The civil case was watched closely by theatre security consultants, some of whom predicted that a verdict against Cinemark would mean sweeping and costly changes to the way theatres protect customers. Some experts said a loss could have forced theatre companies across the country to use metal detectors or hire more security, hiking up ticket prices to offset the cost.
Jurors erased that possibility, deliberating for about three hours before siding with Cinemark. But companies likely would review their safety plans in the event of another mass shooting at a movie theatre, said Tom DeLuca, president and owner of National Cinema Security, which provides security to theatres across the U.S.
“Theater owners are probably breathing a sigh of relief,” he said. “But I can see them re-evaluating what policies they currently have so they’re not put in that situation, having to be on trial and having to explain why they didn’t have armed security.”
Cinemark argued that nothing could have stopped the armour-clad Holmes. After months of meticulous planning, he threw gas canisters into the crowd of more than 400 and then opened fire with a shotgun, assault rifle and semi-automatic pistol.
“Cinemark endured a tremendous tragedy, as did the victims of the case and the entire Aurora community … at the hands of a madman, James Holmes,” attorney Kevin Taylor told reporters. “Mr. Holmes was clearly unpredictable, unforeseeable, unpreventable and unstoppable. … The only thing that matches the unforeseeability of this case is the tragedy of it.”
Holmes was sentenced to life in prison last year after a different group of jurors failed to agree unanimously that he deserved the death penalty.
Marc Bern, an attorney for the victims who sued the theatre, said he would ask a judge to set aside the verdict while his clients appeal.
“These victims of this tragedy have been dealt another blow,” Bern said. “Cinemark failed to do a number of things that should have been done. … They’re going to have to wait some time now before they get justice.”
Jurors and victims left the courthouse without speaking to reporters Thursday.
Taylor told jurors that it was the first mass shooting at a theatre “in the history of American cinema,” saying such shootings are still so rare that management could not have anticipated one at a theatre with no history of serious violence.
Other Cinemark theatres had guards in place for the opening of “The Dark Knight Rises,” which was expected to draw more than 1,000 people. Taylor said they were not needed for the Thursday premiere in suburban Aurora, though the theatre staffed guards on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
It’s unclear whether the verdict would affect several other civil trials stemming from the shooting. Another case against Cinemark involving at least 40 other victims is set to open in federal court in July.
Victims also are suing Holmes’ University of Colorado psychiatrist, arguing she and other university officials should have done more to stop the attack after Holmes confessed his homicidal thoughts.