In 2012, James Holmes, a 24-year-old former PhD student from San Diego, went into a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colorado with multiple firearms and began shooting. He killed 12 people, wounded 70 others and sent a shudder through movie fans who had to worry whether dark movie theaters are safe.
Holmes was convicted of murder and attempted murder and sentenced to 12 consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole.
Now, in two separate legal matters — one in state court, and one in federal court — the theater chain Cinemark was found not to be at fault for the attacks. In May, a jury found that Cinemark, which ran the Aurora theater, could not have prevented the rampage and was thus not liable in a civil action. Then, on June 24, a federal judge dismissed a similar case. In that case Cinemark was alleged to have violated a Colorado law for not exercising reasonable care to protect its customers.
Ted Johnson is a senior editor at Variety, and he covered the trial of the Aurora shooter. He spoke with The Frame host John Horn to explain how the two more recent cases focused on whether the movie theater was negligent.
What was at issue? What were the plaintiffs' accusations?
Were they not paying attention enough to what safety procedures they could actually put in that theater? Could they have put an alarm on the exit? Could they have employed more security officers on that evening back in 2012 which would have perhaps made some of the losses, injuries and deaths less when James Holmes burst into the theater?
The plaintiffs were arguing that the theater could have and might have alarmed its doors or had armed security. Was the deciding issue that Mr. Holmes would have bypassed those things regardless, or that he was very much planning to do this and those steps wouldn't have meant anything?
Yeah, I think it's probably a combination of both. To prove a negligent claim within the state of Colorado, the plaintiffs in the case — those being the families — had to prove that the theater's negligence was the "proximate cause" of the victims' injuries. The judge took a look at that threshold and said, Wait a minute — the theater was not the proximate cause of the victims' injuries, it was James Holmes, the shooter. He premeditated it and who knows if they had those security precautions in place, [whether] that would have mitigated the injuries or mitigated the deaths that evening. He pretty much rejected the whole idea that the movie theater was negligent.
You covered the trial of James Holmes. How did he get into the theater and what did he come into the theater with in terms of guns?
He came into the theater in military garb and had several weapons with him. He came through a side door in the theater. There was evidence that he scoped it out beforehand. That again is a defense for Cinemark, that they couldn't have anticipated that something like this would actually happen. I think the irony in this case is that now that there has been this shooting, it raises questions about what kinds of security theaters should have. What is the precaution that they should take in order to make themselves not liable should something like this happen again?
I guess then the court's decision in this most recent case is probably good news for theater owners. At the same time a lot of states are passing looser gun laws. I can remember a couple of examples over the last year, like the "Straight Outta Compton" premiere, where guests had to go through metal detectors. Where do theaters stand in terms of checking people who are coming into their auditoriums?
It's so interesting because after a [Louisiana] theater shooting [when] "Trainwreck" opened last summer, a number of security professionals posed this question: What should theaters actually be doing right now? The whole idea of metal detectors, they dismissed that. A lot of the security professionals dismissed that out of hand. I'm not so sure that they would now. It would be an incredible expense for movie theaters across the country, but there have been so many of these mass shootings since then that it goes back to the definition of a foreseeable incident. Cinemark argued that what happened at that Aurora, Colorado movie theater was unforeseeable. The judge and the jury in another civil case really sided with Cinemark's position, but the more that we see of these theater shootings, the more a plaintiff could come around and say, This is within the realm of possibilities because we've had a number of these theater shootings and you should have taken greater precaution. Perhaps that precaution in the future is going to be metal detectors.