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McDonald’s Isn’t Liable in Massacre, Court Ruling Says

Times Staff Writer

McDonald’s Corp. cannot be held liable for deaths and injuries caused by John Oliver Huberty’s shooting rampage 21 months ago at a McDonald’s restaurant in San Ysidro, a San Diego County Superior Court judge ruled Thursday.

If upheld on appeal, the decision would block what attorneys have considered probably the best hope, among several legal claims, for survivors of the massacre to collect compensation stemming from the massacre, the worst single-day slaughter in U.S. history.

Judge Mack P. Lovett rejected the survivors’ contention that McDonald’s was negligent in providing basic security measures in the San Ysidro restaurant where Huberty killed 21 people and injured 19 in an hourlong shooting spree July 18, 1984. It ended when Huberty was killed by a police sniper.

Lovett ruled it was unreasonable to expect a business to anticipate the wanton acts of a madman. “There’s just no duty here (to take precautions) as a matter of law,” Lovett said in granting McDonald’s a summary judgment of dismissal.

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Though the decision affected only two suits filed on behalf of 26 victims and survivors of the massacre, attorneys for both sides said there was a strong likelihood that it eventually would be extended to the cases that are still pending in court for another 37 survivors.

“It was a tragic and isolated incident,” McDonald’s spokesman Dick Starmann said after the hearing. “Hopefully, now it’s over.”

David Korrey, a San Diego attorney who represents 25 of the 26 survivors whose claims were rejected Thursday, predicted the cases would remain active in appellate courts for several years, however.

“It’s painful to our case,” Korrey said of the ruling. But he insisted that Lovett had misread prevailing case law and that the judge’s ruling would be reversed on appeal.

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“If you have noticed that people are at risk when they visit your business, I do really feel that the law puts a duty on you to do something to protect your patrons,” Korrey said.

More than 60 survivors of the massacre sued McDonald’s and numerous other defendants in the search of compensation for the tragedy. But the claims have slowly unraveled.

A U.S. District Court judge has tentatively dismissed suits brought by Korrey’s clients against the company that imported the Uzi semi-automatic gun used by Huberty, 41, on the July afternoon the gun collector and sometime security guard announced to his wife that he was “going hunting humans.”

Pending before Lovett is a request by the City of San Diego that it, too, be dropped as a defendant in the survivors’ lawsuits. The victims contend that errors by San Diego police and emergency 911 telephone operators extended Huberty’s rampage, but the city argues it is immune by law from second-guessing its employees’ high-pressure judgments.

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A Superior Court judge already has cleared the State of California of any liability for the emergency operators’ performance. Meanwhile, Korrey has voluntarily dropped other defendants--AT&T;, the operators of a TV news helicopter that flew over the massacre site and the publishers of a gun newspaper that printed ads for Uzis--from his clients’ suits.

There has been less activity in suits handled by other law firms, however, and at least one lawyer for some of the victims refused to share in the growing pessimism over his clients’ chances of winning compensation.

“I know what evidence I have, and there’s no way in the world a summary judgment is going to be granted in the case of my clients,” said Federico Sayre, a Century City attorney whose firm represents 33 people in the case.

In his suits against McDonald’s, Korrey argued that previous cases in California courts have established that property owners, once placed on notice that visitors to their facilities face a risk of crime or violence, have a duty to undertake security precautions to protect them.

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The suits contend that McDonald’s ignored the relatively high crime rate in San Ysidro, including several serious crimes at or near the restaurant in the months preceding July, 1984. They also cite the sworn testimony of a salesman who offered McDonald’s a private security program about two months before the massacre but was turned away.

Attorneys for McDonald’s, though, argued that Huberty’s actions were entirely unpredictable and that it would set a dangerous precedent if a restaurant was required to guard against wanton acts of violence.

“To prevent a madman, such as Huberty, from bursting into a public structure, such as McDonald’s, on any given day at any time and engaging in a killing spree would literally require that the restaurant be fortified like a fort under siege with a fully armed, around- the-clock SWAT team,” attorney H.R. Hollywood said in court documents asking for the suits’ dismissal.

“One must further ask whether the fortunate rarity of this sort of bizarre behavior should force restaurant proprietors to create an environment where patrons either huddle in dark, secured bunkers, or be surrounded by an army ready to ‘neutralize’ any suspicious character who suddenly reaches into his jacket.”

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Hollywood also noted in oral arguments Thursday that McDonald’s had contributed $1 million to a fund providing medical care and other assistance to victims and survivors of the massacre.

Leading personal injury and victim’s lawyers in San Diego have considered it unlikely that the victims could obtain damages from McDonald’s for losses stemming from the massacre, and the investment community evidently shared their doubts.

Stock analysts contacted Thursday said there had been little discussion in investment circles of the massacre litigation’s possible effects on McDonald’s Corp.'s finances.

“I wouldn’t want to suggest it was ever an issue with any investment implications,” one Wall Street analyst said.

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“I would think McDonald’s in any event would be insured for that sort of situation,” added William Trainer, an analyst who follows the company for Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, a New York-based brokerage firm.

On a day when the stock market was down, McDonald’s Corp. common stock closed down 2 3/4 points at 94 1/2 Thursday on the New York Stock Exchange.


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