Experts: MGM Suit Against Shooting Victims a Potential PR Firestorm

Police officers stand at the scene of an Oct. 1, 2017, shooting near the Mandalay Bay resort and casino in Las Vegas. Multiple victims were being transported to hospitals after a shooting late Sunday at a music festival on the Strip. (AP Photo/John Locher)

LOS ANGELES (CN) – Over the last week, MGM Resorts International has filed lawsuits against hundreds of victims of the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history, claiming it’s protected from victim lawsuits thanks to a law passed after Sept. 11 that limits liability in terror attacks. But experts say in addition to the obvious public relations problems, MGM’s “novel” legal strategy was never meant for situations like this.

From his 32nd-floor hotel room overlooking the Route 91 Harvest Festival at MGM Resort’s Mandalay Bay hotel and casino, Stephen Paddock fired over 1,000 bullets into the crowd of concertgoers. Paddock killed 58 people and physically and emotionally wounded hundreds more before law enforcement found him in his room, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday, MGM Resorts sued dozens of victims of the massacre, claiming it is protected from liability because its security provider Contemporary Services operated under the terms of the Safety Act and is approved by the Department of Homeland Security.

The 2002 law creates “systems of risk and litigation management” in order to ensure that “the threat of liability” doesn’t stop potential antiterrorism technology manufacturers from creating their products and services. But George Washington University law professor Lawrence Cunningham said the statute MGM relies on was never intended for use in a situation like this, and that it was instead intended to protect firms like airlines who are “actively involved in formal security defense of terrorism situations.”

Cunningham called MGM’s legal strategy “novel, savvy and clever” but said it has only “modest chance” succeeding in court.

“I wouldn’t call it a frivolous complaint, but in court you have to be practical and appreciate what Congress did and what it was trying to accomplish,” Cunningham said. “You have to think about what a judge is likely to do about this argument.”

In its complaint, MGM says it has “no liability of any kind” and that federal court is where all actions relating to the massacre should be heard.

“All we are doing, in effect, is asking for a change in venue from state to federal court. We are not asking for money or attorney’s fees,” MGM said in a statement Tuesday.

The company says the action is meant to “quickly, fairly, and efficiently” resolve the nearly 2,500 lawsuits stemming from the tragedy. MGM Resorts spokeswoman Debra DeShong told Courthouse News that “years of drawn out litigation and hearings are not in the best interest of victims, the community and those still healing.”

Previous lawsuits by survivors have targeted the festival venue, concert promoter Live Nation Entertainment, and Slide Fire Solutions, the manufacturer of the bump-stock mechanism Paddock used to fire so many rounds into the crowd.

MGM attorney Michael Doyen of Munger, Tolles & Olson did not respond to a request for comment by press time. A representative for Scott Sweeney and E. Stratton Horres Jr. of Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker, also representing MGM, declined to comment.

But a survivor group said on Instagram Tuesday it was “deeply saddened” by MGM’s legal move.

“Many [survivors] have been hopeful that MGM would also step up in a big way to help them,” the group Route 91 Strong said in a statement. “Unfortunately, we are all shocked to learn that it appears MGM is doing exactly the opposite. Rather than supporting victims, MGM is re-victimizing them.”

In a statement, Brian E. Claypool of Claypool Law Firm – co-founder of Route 91 Strong, a survivor of the mass shooting and an attorney representing several other victims in lawsuits against MGM  – called MGM’s lawsuit a “bullying tactic.”

“We don’t believe that MGM will prevail on its lawsuit and this hypocritical maneuver will end up being a public relations nightmare for MGM,” Claypool said.

Claypool may have a point: The response on social media has been outrage and bewilderment, with some Twitter users vowing to boycott MGM-owned casinos and resorts.

“Imagine being on a relaxing vacation in Las Vegas when a man in a nearby hotel starts shooting at you, resulting in 851 people injured and 58 people killed, and then being sued by the hotel,” CNN political commentator Keith Boykin said on Twitter.

Michael A. Chasalow, a law professor at the University of Southern California, said the public relations backlash highlights a “tension between legal maneuvering” and a company’s business interests.

“[MGM] has to balance a desire to do the right thing, assuming there is one, against desire to limit financial exposure of company,” Chasalow said. “But usually that’s not done in such tragic circumstances.”

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