In a major setback for survivors of the 1984 massacre at a McDonald's restaurant in San Ysidro, a state appellate court ruled Tuesday that San Diego cannot be held financially liable for alleged police errors in responding to the tragedy.
The decision by the 4th District Court of Appeal says police--who were criticized by some San Ysidro residents for acting too slowly during an hourlong standoff with gunman James Oliver Huberty--did nothing to increase the danger to restaurant patrons and passers-by and thus cannot be held to account for their response.
Lawyers representing 26 survivors of the July 18, 1984, massacre contended that bad planning and poor decision-making by senior police officers exacerbated the carnage, instead of lessening it. But the three-judge appellate panel, upholding a lower court's ruling against the survivors, disagreed.
"The police can in no way be charged with lulling Huberty's victims into a false sense of security, nor can the alleged inaction by police reasonably be said to have increased the risk of harm to which the victims were subject," the judges said.
"In fact, in view of the sheer horror of the ordeal, it is difficult to imagine anything the police could have done or failed to do which would have made the risk any greater than that to which (the victims) were exposed before the police arrived."
Huberty shot and killed 21 people and injured 15 more before a police sniper killed him.
The ruling is the latest in a series of court decisions rejecting the survivors' attempts to seek compensation for their injuries and for their relatives' deaths.
In federal court, a judge last year threw out the victims' lawsuits against the company that imported the Uzi semiautomatic gun Huberty used in his spree.
And last April, a San Diego County Superior Court judge dismissed the survivors' suits against McDonald's Corp., holding that it was unreasonable to expect a business to have taken precautions against the unpredictable acts of a madman. The 4th District appeal court will hear arguments in an appeal of that decision next month.
Suits filed by an additional 37 survivors have not been directly affected by the rulings. But attorneys say the decisions in the initial set of cases may indicate how the other suits will fare.
David Korrey, the lawyer for 25 of the survivors whose claims were rejected Tuesday, said he may appeal the latest decision to the state Supreme Court.
The appellate decision was an important victory for the city, Deputy City Atty. Les Girard said, because courts increasingly have been holding municipalities liable for the unintended consequences of police actions.
It also was important, he said, for the survivors and police officers who might have been subjected to interviews and court appearances if the cases had gone to trial.
"We don't have to go through the trauma of discovery and rehashing over the facts of this terrible incident," Girard said. "It saves a lot of grief on both sides."