A former Florida sheriff’s deputy is claiming he had no legal duty to confront the gunman who murdered 17 people and wounded 17 others at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School nearly six years ago, his attorney argued Monday.
The legal team representing Broward County Deputy Scot Peterson asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit brought by the victims’ families and survivors, even though the decision would likely be derided by the public.
Attorney Michael Piper told Circuit Judge Carol-Lisa Phillips that under the law, his client cannot be sued for anything he did or didn’t do during the Feb. 14, 2018, massacre. He cited appellate court cases that say police officers don’t have a legal obligation to protect others from third-party harm and cannot be sued for decisions they make during a crisis.
Piper said that while it might not be a popular decision, the judge must uphold the law and throw out the lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages. There are also suits filed against Broward Sheriff’s Office and two school security guards.
Gunman Nikolas Cruz, a 25-year-old former Stoneman Douglas student, is serving a life sentence for the murders and attempted murders.
“There is a difference between legal duty and what I guess I’ll call societal expectations,” the attorney for the sheriff’s deputy argued. All the public will hear is that Peterson was in uniform and had a gun, he said, yet “When faced with this murderous rampage going on in this three-story building, he doesn’t have a duty to stop it?”
“People are outraged,” Piper said, of the notion that a law enforcement officer doesn’t have a duty. “Yes, that is exactly what we are saying. That is exactly what the law is.”
But attorneys David Brill and Joel Perwin, representing the families and survivors, told the judge that Peterson’s actions both during and before the shooting fall outside the law’s protections because they were made in bad faith and with willful negligence.
Perwin said that according to Piper’s argument, Florida police officers could not be sued if they kept walking when they witnessed a robber attacking a liquor store clerk. Piper countered that while that might be unpalatable to the public, that is legally correct.
Brill said Peterson knew that Cruz was nicknamed “Crazy Boy” by campus security guards when he was a student two years before the shooting — and that he was considered by school staff to be the one person who could shoot up the school.
Yet, he did not have Cruz committed for mental treatment before the shooting, Brill argued. And just before the shooting — when Peterson learned Cruz had been spotted back on campus carrying a bag and backpack — the deputy didn’t order an immediate lock down.
“His primary reason for being there was for the safety, health and welfare of the students and the faculty,” Brill said of Peterson. “He had a duty to protect the administration, the teachers and students to a variety of unreasonable risks, including active shooters.”
Sitting in the gallery, Peterson shook his head and grunted in disagreement during Brill’s argument. The parents of two students who were killed, 15-year-old Luke Hoyer and 18-year-old Meadow Pollack, sat down just feet behind Peterson, who later moved to the other side of the courtroom before leaving.
Judge Phillips took the arguments under advisement and said she would rule soon. The trial is expected to start next year, if it goes forward.
The families and survivors have already settled claims with the FBI — whose agents failed to investigate a warning about Cruz — and the Broward school district for a combined $153 million.
In June, Peterson was acquitted of criminal charges of child neglect. It was the first time a U.S. police officer had been charged with failing to act during a school shooting. Legal experts said the law that prosecutors applied wasn’t written to address Peterson’s actions.
Security videos played during that trial show that 36 seconds after Cruz’s attack began, Peterson exited his office about 100 yards (92 meters) from the school building and jumped into a cart with two civilian security guards who were unarmed. They arrived at the building a minute later.
Peterson got out of the cart near the east doorway to the first-floor hallway. Cruz was at the hallway’s opposite end, firing his AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle.
Peterson, who was not wearing a bullet-resistant vest, didn’t open the door. Instead, he took cover 75 feet (23 meters) away in the alcove of a neighboring building, his gun still drawn. He stayed there for 40 minutes, long after the shooting ended and other police officers had stormed the building.
For nearly three decades, Peterson worked at schools, including nine years at Stoneman Douglas. He retired shortly after the shooting and was then fired retroactively.
Cruz pleaded guilty to the shootings in 2021. In a penalty trial last year, the jury could not unanimously agree that Cruz deserved the death penalty and he was then sentenced to life in prison. Florida subsequently changed its death penalty law so that only an 8-4 vote is required for a judge to sentence a convicted murderer to death.