William Corley, an attorney who represents six plaintiffs against a mass shooting in Texas
Waukesha victims can sue for Darrell Brooks being out on the streets? Experts weigh in
New legal proceedings by survivors of a mass shooting in a Milwaukee-area shopping mall this year can help many victims and families pursue claims in court, in some cases for much bigger damages than for which they might otherwise receive compensation, a legal expert said.
But Dr David Siegel, a Texas trauma surgeon and editor of the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, cautioned that the April shooting, in which five people were killed and three injured in an attack by a white supremacist at the Henry Pratt Co warehouse, could generate huge legal bills for the victims.
“Generally, even though this case is particularly egregious and more deaths are likely, the damages are of a significantly smaller magnitude,” Siegel said. “But just because a victim suffers from a small degree of injury doesn’t mean that the damage is negligible.”
The Henry Pratt shooting had some similarities to last week’s San Francisco rampage, which left six dead and 14 wounded. But there were also differences: unlike the San Francisco killings, the Henry Pratt victims live in an area where they were likely not likely to benefit from the explosion of grief, said William Corley, an attorney representing six people who survived the attack, or sought victims’ compensation.
Waukesha ‘felony discharge’, no murderer … or victim?
In the heart of downtown Milwaukee in May, a gunman sprayed shoppers at the Henry Pratt Company warehouse with bullets, killing five and injuring three. After police captured the alleged gunman, 36-year-old Clayton Parks, he said in a profanity-laced statement he was once a corrections officer at Wisconsin’s prisons. That put police at a disadvantage in legal proceedings, as convicted felons cannot admit to a “felony discharge”, a class of violent crimes including manslaughter.
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But after the May shootings, Milwaukee officials filed a document listing five “felony discharge” convictions against Parks, some of which connected him to the shooting. A judge granted one of those convictions and agreed to combine two other convictions into one, a signature victory for the injured victims.
“They brought that felon discharge and it was the greatest legal document you could get, in my opinion,” Corley said.
Ballistics tests showed that two of the victims, later identified as Daniele Witzel and Trevor Wehner, had been struck by the first bullet from the shooter, according to testimony at the trial.
But a later bullet striking Wehner in the head was unrelated to the first one, the medical examiner’s office testified, because Parks accidentally fired the second bullet while firing another at Wehner.
Witnesses told Milwaukee police and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives they saw the shooter cross paths with Witzel and Wehner at a restaurant and in the food court, respectively.
After seeing those two victims, police said the gunman had a look of “nervousness” on his face. Corley and witnesses acknowledged that they cannot be sure how the shooter came into contact with Witzel and Wehner.
The Wisconsin state constitution applies to certain categories of crimes, but the lawsuit challenging a felony discharge provision that would allow the Waukesha victims to sue is different than suing a constitutional cause, Corley said.
“We’re talking about some enhanced damages here,” Corley said. “A plaintiff can’t sue just for themselves – they can’t sue for just against the death penalty.”
Nevertheless, after prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed that Parks and Witzel met qualifications to begin the criminal complaint process as plaintiffs, Corley and his law firm had to conduct a careful review.
“At the same time you’re asking us to do a bunch of research into what could be a controversial legal defense, we’re trying to figure out how we’re going to help the victim,” Corley said.
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Early drafts of the complaint had the potential to anger the victims’ families. “Everybody was pretty certain that this would raise a big stink and they wanted to make sure everybody had agreed that it was appropriate,” Corley said.
And many of the questions from the victims’ families concerned the placement of guns in their homes. “We had one child ask us, is this a