Victim’s Relatives and Survivors of a Workplace Shooting Spree
Case Type: Multi-plaintiff/Mass-Tort
One morning in 1999, a paranoid repair technician working for Xerox Corporation in Honolulu came to work armed with assault weapons and rounds of ammunition. He shot and killed seven of his coworkers and emotionally traumatized others. Following the criminal trial, 35 family members of the victims and one survivor of the shooting filed separate lawsuits alleging, among other claims, symptoms of severe emotional distress resulting from the shooting deaths. fpamed’s Mark I. Levy was retained by Xerox Corporation’s outside defense counsel and given the task of evaluating approximately 20 of the 35 plaintiffs. Together with a forensic psychologist colleague, they tested and examined all of these individuals. By examining the entire group, they learned many things that would probably have been missed had they been asked to assess only one or two individual litigants. For example, they learned from the diversity among the plaintiffs examined that Hawaiian society is stratified among a number of different cultural and socioeconomic class groups. Someone’s relative position within this uniquely stratified Pacific “melting pot” culture had a direct bearing upon how the individual plaintiff managed the loss that he or she had suffered. After completing the 20 evaluations, they were able to differentiate within the population those litigants who had suffered the onset of PTSD or exacerbation of preexisting mental illness from those who had experienced normal bereavement. Among the population of 20 plaintiffs who underwent psychiatric assessment, one individual, an actual survivor of the shooting who witnessed the repair technician shoot people in the head execution style on each side of his workspace, developed bona fide PTSD. Several other plaintiffs reported mild to moderate symptoms of depression. Several plaintiffs had preexisting mental conditions such as schizophrenia and personality disorders. Surprisingly they were not significantly traumatized by the tragic event. Some plaintiffs only showed evidence of simple bereavement, a normal, a non-pathological response to the loss of a loved one.
Within contemporary behavioral research literature, it is well established that the likelihood of developing PTSD increases with the severity of the stressor. A driver involved in a $200 fender-bender is far less likely to develop PTSD following that event than a victim of a violent crime such as rape. Among rape victims, approximately 50 percent develop PTSD. Perhaps even more interesting is that 50 percent do not. Why a particular individual develops a serious emotional response to a traumatic event while another does not has been the focus of increasing scientific study. Similar to molecular biologists studying the immune system, psychologists have begun to identify and differentiate among vulnerability or risk factors that increase the likelihood of developing PTSD following a traumatic event and resiliency factors that protect against it.
Based upon a consistent battery of tests administered to each plaintiff, combined with a careful and detailed psychiatric examination, the team was able to show that a typical Bell Curve distribution of damages existed among the population of 20 examined plaintiffs. The majority of individuals in the group, however, suffered only minor mental effects in addition to their uncomplicated bereavement. At each “tail” of the distribution curve, a few were unscathed and one or two had significant mental injuries.
In mass tort litigation, if each plaintiff’s attorney argues that his or her client is among the most seriously “wounded,” it is helpful for an expert to be able to differentiate the few who may be seriously injured from the majority who are not. Not only does this broad perspective add to the credibility of a forensic psychiatrist’s testimony, but this evidence-based opinion far more accurately informs the trier of fact.