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As memorial services continue for the victims of last week’s courthouse shootings, there are signs that authorities responsible for security may face civil suits. Atlanta lawyer Gilbert H. Deitch, who has won big verdicts for clients attacked in parking lots and apartment complexes, said Wednesday he has been contacted by a lawyer making inquiries for the family of one of last week’s victims. “There’s activity,” said Deitch, who represents the widower of a victim in the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing in a suit against Olympic organizers. Deitch would not name the shooting victim or the lawyer making calls on the family’s behalf. Deitch said Fulton County had “an assumed duty to provide adequate security” at the courthouse. Authorities say Brian G. Nichols, a 33-year-old former college linebacker, overpowered a 51-year-old female deputy who was guarding him as he changed into street clothes before facing a jury on a rape charge. Nichols allegedly took the deputy’s pistol, took several people hostage, and shot and killed Judge Rowland W. Barnes, court reporter Julie A. Brandau and Sgt. Hoyt Teasley. Authorities also plan to charge Nichols in the murder of David Wilhelm, a federal agent found dead Saturday morning. Deitch said potential claims against Fulton County would stem from assigning a “diminutive” deputy to guard Nichols, whom jailers had found with homemade knives in his shoes two days before the attacks. Deputies’ inattention to a security monitor that showed Nichols attacking the deputy — as reported in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution — also could be the basis of a claim, Deitch said. “The causes of action, to me, are clear,” said Deitch. But he acknowledged that “there are some obvious legal hurdles.” BARRIER TO SUCCESSFUL SUITS Indeed, county governments are generally protected by state law from suits, said Buford, Ga., lawyer Thomas M. Mitchell, who regularly defends local law enforcement officers in suits. Amendments to the state constitution in 1991, Mitchell said, give county governments strong immunity from suits, much more than immunity granted to municipal governments. In federal court, Mitchell suggested, plaintiffs would have to prove Fulton County security officers were “deliberately indifferent to the rights of citizens” to win a case claiming the victims’ civil rights were violated. “That’s an awfully tough claim to make, even in this situation,” said Mitchell, who added that his knowledge of the Fulton shootings was limited to media reports. Ronald L. Carlson, who teaches trial practice at the University of Georgia School of Law, said the county’s sovereign immunity is “an almost impenetrable barrier to successful citizen suits,” despite evidence of security lapses. Any government officers who were sued individually, Carlson and Mitchell said, would be protected by “official immunity,” unless their actions could be proven to have occurred with malice. Fulton County Attorney Overtis Hicks Brantley said Wednesday that she has not been notified of any suits against the county regarding the shootings. She said the county has excess liability insurance for any cases in which the county must pay more than $2 million. For now, Brantley said, she is concentrating on attending the funerals of the victims. SHOOTINGS NATIONWIDE Counties involved in courthouse shootings around the country have largely been protected from civil liability. In 1992, a man in a divorce case shot and killed his wife, wounded four others and shot at a judge in the St. Louis County Courthouse. The courthouse at the time had no screening for weapons, and the Missouri Supreme Court previously had ordered St. Louis officials to beef up security there, according to Douglas Copeland, who represented the slain woman’s family. “We had some pretty good evidence,” said Copeland. But a judge cited sovereign immunity and official immunity in tossing out the family’s wrongful death suit. The shooter’s fate is uncertain, as the state high court threw out his murder conviction and death sentence because the trial took place in the courthouse where the shootings occurred, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Also in 1992, a man shot and killed a prosecutor in a Fort Worth, Texas, courthouse. Family members of the slain man sued Wal-Mart officials for not noticing the shooter was mentally unbalanced when selling him the gun. The shooter was executed, and in 2002 a jury absolved the retailer of responsibility, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Fort Worth attorney Art Brender, who represented the slain prosecutor’s family, said immunity and workers’ compensation laws prevented him from suing the government agencies in charge of courthouse security. Richard L. Hendrickson, a sole practitioner from the Minneapolis area, was shot in the neck in 2003 in Minnesota’s Hennepin County courthouse. Hendrickson’s client, who was opposing the shooter in a case over the estate of the shooter’s father, was murdered. Hendrickson said he hasn’t ruled out a suit against the county or officials, adding that Minnesota law allows six years to pass before a negligence suit is barred. No security screening took place at the courthouse, and Hendrickson said deputies told him after the shooting that they had alerted county board members that a shooting was bound to occur. In response to that shooting, weapons screening was implemented in Minneapolis. Coincidentally, it started on Monday.

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