SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) – Relatives of three people killed in the 2015 terror attack in San Bernardino, California, lobbied a federal judge Monday for another chance at a lawsuit that lays some of the blame for the attack on the county, the federal government and others.
U.S. District Judge Andrew J. Guilford ordered the attorneys for relatives of victims Sierra Clayborn, Nicholas Thalasinos and Tin Nguyen to file an amended complaint by March 9 to fix what he saw as a number of problems with their original lawsuit.
In an attack that shocked the nation, San Bernardino County employee Sayed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, entered a county holiday party armed with semi-automatic weapons and killed 14 people and wounded 22 in a massacre that authorities believe was inspired by Islamic extremists.
Farook, a U.S. citizen and Malik, a Pakistani national, later were killed in a gun battle with police.
In a lawsuit filed in state court a month after the December 2015 attack, plaintiffs Gregory Clayborn, Kimberly Clayborn, Tamishia Clayborn, Vanessa Nguyen, Trung Do, James Thalasinos, and Jacob Thalasinos said San Bernardino County, the federal Justice and Homeland Security departments and the Inland Counties Regional Center where the shooting took place share liability for the attack.
The plaintiffs claim the defendants should have prevented Farook and Malik from entering the building with weapons, should have realized Farook might be violent and should have kept Malik out of the country, among other claims. Their case was transferred to Guilford in federal court in September.
In a tentative ruling released Monday morning, the judge criticized the version of the lawsuit before him for making “sweeping allegations [that] often fail to specifically identify which defendants did what.”
He also wrote he would completely throw out, without leave to amend, the plaintiffs’ claims against the county because the relatives had collected benefits through workers’ compensation claims. Generally, workers’ compensation statutes bar any other lawsuits against an employer over the same injuries.
But one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, Theida Salazar of Burbank, California, said in an interview after the hearing that he persuaded Guilford to reconsider that proposed ruling. Salazar argued that only a worker’s dependents can collect from the compensation system, not other relatives. In this case, for instance, Kimberly Clayborn was Sierra Clayborn’s stepmother, while Tamisha Clayborn and Trung Do were sisters of victims.
Salazar is also one of the attorneys representing the same plaintiffs plus others in a lawsuit against Twitter, Facebook and Google for allowing terrorist groups such as ISIS to radicalize and recruit adherents and encourage them to carry out attacks. That case, filed in May, is pending in federal court in the Northern District of California.
In his ruling, Guilford also questioned whether the plaintiffs could sue the regional center for failing to prevent the attack. Under a string of California appellate decisions, a building’s owner can only be found liable for a crime committed on its premises if the crime was “foreseeable” based on similar crimes having occurred there in the past.
The relatives contended the defendants should have known that the killers had a “predisposition to violence” given their backgrounds and other clues.
But, the judge asked, does that “mean the building owner should reasonably foresee that the person may kill other patrons?”
Guilford allowed the plaintiffs to amend their complaint to buttress their claim with additional facts.
An attorney for the regional center, Eligio Luevanos of Beach Cowdrey Jenkins in Oxnard, California, said the judge dismissed some claims against his client without leave to amend but allowed the plaintiffs to try again to demonstrate foreseeability.
The judge also tentatively ruled that the relatives could amend their complaint against the two federal departments. In a short interview after the hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Zatz said instead Guilford agreed to consider whether additional federal code sections require the lawsuit against the federal government to be thrown out entirely.
In the last paragraph of his 10-page tentative, Guilford warned the plaintiffs’ attorneys – Salazar and Ashton Ryan Watkins of Los Angeles – that their case raises “serious claims against the government that could have far-reaching implications.
“Attorneys who bring such claims have a high calling to carry this important responsibility in our country to assure that such claims are properly presented.”
Salazar said that the attorneys agreed “definitely to do so.”
Guilford took the case under submission. He is expected to rule shortly on whether to allow or throw out the claims against the county and the federal government, attorneys said.