WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CN) – More than 40 plaintiffs have dropped their claims against security company G4S in a lawsuit alleging that terrorist Omar Mateen used his firearms training as a G4S guard to maximize the carnage in his jihadist attack at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando two years ago.
The lawsuit against G4S Secure Solutions in Palm Beach County Circuit Court, from which many plaintiffs withdrew last week, had faced significant legal hurdles in its early stages, with the judge noting that the shooter was off-duty and far away from his G4S workplace when he perpetrated the attack.
Mateen, a U.S.-born Florida resident, drove from his family home in Fort Pierce to Orlando, more than 100 miles away, to carry out the June 2016 massacre at Pulse, a popular destination for gay clubgoers. Forty-nine victims perished in the attack.
The 29-year-old Mateen was killed by police after an hours-long standoff during which he pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and demanded an end to U.S. airstrikes in the Middle East.
According to the plaintiffs’ attorneys, the decision to drop the claims against G4S in the trial court was prompted by presiding Judge Donald Hafele’s apparent skepticism that the company owed a legal duty of care to the plaintiffs under state negligence law.
In a recent filing, the defense team said the plaintiffs’ decision to step away from the trial-court case signaled a potential strategy to get expedited appellate court review of Judge Hafele’s stance. The judge dismissed a prior version of the lawsuit in January, writing that “there are no allegations” that G4S “had any direction or control over Mateen at the time of this tragic event.”
The plaintiffs had tried to focus the court’s attention on conduct that Mateen exhibited while working as a security guard for G4S at the St. Lucie County courthouse. Among other red flags, Mateen is alleged to have threatened a sheriff’s deputy, praised Islamic terrorists and boasted about wanting to die as a martyr.
Mateen’s behavior prompted the FBI to interview him in 2013 – the first of two interviews – and caused county officials to demand that Mateen be removed from the courthouse security job. G4S transferred him to a private community security post, where a co-worker allegedly witnessed him spouting violent rhetoric and going on bigoted tirades about Jews and homosexuals.
Despite all this unsettling behavior, Mateen remained employed with G4S and continued to receive annual firearms training, the plaintiffs alleged. By the time 2016 came around, they said, the training had turned him into an “expert marksman,” which helped him perpetrate what was at the time the deadliest single-shooter massacre in modern U.S. history.
Nicolette Ward at Romanucci & Blandin — a firm that represented several of the plaintiffs — said that while she and her clients knew going into the litigation that they bore a heavy burden to prove liability, she had hoped the court would move the case towards trial based on G4S’s repeated failure to halt Mateen’s firearms training and have his firearms license revoked.
“It’s difficult to not be disappointed. This is a company that had long since been aware of the employee’s dangerous behavior. This was a recurring pattern. It would’ve taken very little energy for G4S to do something about it. We’re disappointed that the judge didn’t perceive it the same way,” Ward told Courthouse News.
The decision to withdraw the claims was hard but prudent, Ward said.
“We made a strategic decision that our attention might best be focused on other legal avenues. … Our conversations with our clients have been productive, and we remain optimistic,” she said.
Romanucci & Blandin had served as counsel on the case alongside Conrad Benedetto and the law firm of Cohen Milstein, among others.
Several estates of fatally wounded victims voluntarily dismissed their claims. Representatives from the estates of Stanley Almodovar, Tevin Crosby, Jean Carlo Mendez Perez, Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, Javier Jorge Reyes, Kimberly Jean Morris and Xavier Serrano Rosado have decided to move on from the litigation.
Benedetto said in a statement to Courthouse News that he is continuing to pursue the case.
“None of the clients represented by The Law Offices of Conrad J. Benedetto and our co-counsel Keith Altman of Excolo Law have voluntarily withdrawn their claims,” Benedetto said. “We and our clients believe a voluntary withdrawal is premature because Judge Hafele has not yet ruled on G4S’s motion to dismiss the plaintiffs’ Second Amended Complaint. We understand the other plaintiffs’ decision to withdraw their claims, but we do not agree with it nor share in their view of the merits of the case.”
Dozens of plaintiffs remain in the case, including several clients from a newly consolidated action brought by high-profile attorney Willie Gary.
Thus far, Judge Hafele has rejected the claimants’ attempts to tie Mateen’s Class G security guard license to the massacre.
The lawsuit alleged that Mateen was able to obtain that license because G4S fraudulently produced a mandatory written psychological evaluation at the outset of his employment in 2007. Allegedly, a psychologist’s name was fraudulently pasted on Mateen’s and hundreds of other employees’ psych evaluations, at a time when the psychologist was no longer working for the company. G4S — which has been fined by Florida for falsely listing the psychologist’s name on its employees’ documents — maintains that it was all an administrative error, and that Mateen’s psychological evaluation was carried out by another qualified psychologist.
In the litigation, the company classified the snafu as a red herring, and Judge Hafele agreed.
The judge wrote in the prior dismissal order that the Class G license had “no legal impact” on Mateen’s ability to buy the weapons he used in the attack.
Judge Hafele has also rejected the plaintiffs’ efforts to evoke Stevens v. USA as a means to establish that G4S had a legal duty not only to those who Mateen encountered during his on-duty hours, but to the public at large. In Stevens, the family of a victim who died in the 2001 anthrax letter killings was permitted to sue the U.S. government for allegedly failing to secure anthrax specimens that were used to lace the letters.
“The court finds Stevens to be distinguishable from the instant facts,” Hafele wrote. “In Stevens, the government created an ultra-hazardous toxin in a laboratory and owed a duty to the public to implement adequate safeguards to prevent its removal. While the government’s duty extended to the general public, it was traceable to a specific location that could be monitored and secured.”
Hafele continued: “Unlike anthrax, which can be created and destroyed in a laboratory, firearms training is an intangible property that cannot be isolated. Plaintiffs’ position, which the court respectfully rejects, would require defendant to protect the general public from Mateen in perpetuity without any spatial or temporal limits.”
In other Pulse shooting litigation news, the Associated Press reported last week that a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit brought against Orlando police officers over alleged deficiencies in their response to the shooting. The judge gave the plaintiffs leave to refile their claims.