WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CN) - Victims of the Pulse gay nightclub massacre that claimed 49 lives took to a Florida appellate court Tuesday in hopes of holding security giant G4S liable for giving firearms training to the killer in the years leading up to the attack.
The murderer, self-professed jihadist Omar Mateen, was employed by G4S from 2007 until his death during the June 2016 mass shooting at the Pulse club in Orlando. It was the deadliest single-shooter attack in modern U.S. history until the 2017 Las Vegas massacre.
Mateen died in a standoff with police after declaring his allegiance to the Islamic State and demanding an end to U.S. airstrikes in the Middle East.
Though the 29-year-old perpetrated the attack while off-duty and using guns he personally purchased, the victims' lawsuit alleged that G4S bears liability on multiple fronts. Among other grounds, the complaint argues the company made Mateen an expert marksman and gave him a security license that helped him buy the murder weapons.
The victims' appellate counsel, Andrew Harris, said in an interview on the courthouse steps Tuesday: "What we're trying to convey is that the specific facts of the case cannot be looked at in isolation. Mateen showed over and over again that he was a ticking time-bomb."
Inside the Fourth District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach, Harris urged the three-judge panel to reverse the lower court's dismissal and allow the case to move towards a trial.
"It should be for a jury to determine proximate cause. We just want the courthouse doors open here," Harris said.
According to the lawsuit, G4S hired Mateen and helped him secure a Class G security license even though he had been kicked out of a Florida prison-guard academy for talking about bringing a firearm to class. The company allegedly kept Mateen on its payroll and continued to give him gun training despite alarming on-the-job statements he made in 2013, wherein he professed sympathy for Islamic terrorists and threatened to have a deputy killed.
Mateen could have bought his murder weapons without that Class G license, by all accounts. But according to the lawsuit, the gun shop owner who sold them to Mateen said in a post-shooting statement that the license was a key reason he let Mateen readily make the purchase. Notably, Mateen was earlier turned away by another gun shop, where staff found him to be so suspicious that they contacted the FBI.
Judge Donald Hafele in the lower court issued two orders in 2018 and 2019 that rejected the victims' claims in the pleading stage. He handed down the final dismissal order in March 2019, finding that G4S could not be held liable for the shooting since Mateen carried it out off-duty, far away from his G4S workplace. As the judge pointed out, Mateen had driven from his home on the Treasure Coast to Orlando, a trip that takes over an hour, to perpetrate the attack.
On appeal Tuesday, Judge Burton Conner pressed G4S about Mateen's training.
"I think it's commonsensical that an employer should not be giving ... gun training to someone who is expressing a desire to commit mass murder and sympathizing with terrorists," Judge Conner said.
As recounted in the case file, Mateen's 2013 on-the-job comments -- including saying that he hoped the police would raid his home so he could die as a martyr -- were alarming enough that the local sheriff's office demanded he be removed from his courthouse security detail. The FBI ended up investigating Mateen's apparent jihadist leanings, interviewing him repeatedly and initiating a surveillance protocol on him.
Amid the controversy, G4S transferred Mateen to a private community security job, after which point he continued to receive annual firearms classes.
During the appellate hearing, G4S's counsel downplayed the extent to which the company trained Mateen. The lawyer said that while Mateen's security license required that he receive 28 hours of initial gun training, he subsequently received only four hours of firearms training each year.
The annual retraining courses typically encompass shooting mechanics, safety and marksmanship.
The company's counsel further argued to the appellate court that the plaintiffs were trying to pursue a negligent hiring case disguised as a general negligence case. It's an important distinction since a negligent hiring case would generally require that the shooting was somehow tied to Mateen's employment with G4S, the company argued.
Though Judge Conner said it is irksome that G4S "enhanced Mateen's ability to hit a bullseye," he echoed some of the trial court judge's reservations about exposing potential defendants to liability for providing gun training. Doing so could create an expansive standard where companies could have a legal duty to protect the general public in perpetuity from anyone whom the companies gave training.
"If we were to agree with your argument, how would we articulate this duty so that it's not overly broad?" Judge Conner asked Harris.
Harris maintained that the case need not produce a sweeping ruling or cause common law on negligence to be rewritten. He argued that G4S had a duty of care to the general public arising from the numerous red flags that Mateen exhibited. The attorney focused much of his time on Mateen's purchase of the murder weapons rather than the training issue that seemed to be gaining traction with the panel.
The panel consisted of Judge Conner and Judge Jeffrey Kuntz, with Judge Cory Ciklin presiding.
G4S has admitted that Mateen's pre-hire mental evaluation was falsely stamped with the name of a psychologist who no longer worked for the company. However, the company, one of the largest security outfits in the United States, maintains that the evaluation was properly reviewed by another doctor.
At the outset of the litigation, the psych evaluation was either an insidiously fraudulent document or the product of a clerical error, depending on whose counsel you asked.
Conner noted Tuesday that it is debatable whether the mental evaluation, which was largely limited to a written test, would have found underlying instability or violent tendencies in Mateen.
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