Video-game makers escape liability for youth violence

Purveyors of video games, movies, and other media that feature mayhem and violence have escaped legal responsibility for "copycat" crimes committed by real people against real victims.

A case stemming from the 1997 school shooting in Paducah, Ky. - in which the families of three slain girls were suing a group of entertainment companies - was dismissed last week, after a federal judge found that the media firms had no liability in the shooting.

The $33 million lawsuit alleged that teenage gunman Michael Carneal was imitating violence he witnessed in video games, movies, and Internet sites when he fired shots into a student prayer group at Heath High School on Dec. 1, 1997.

In dismissing the case, US district Judge Edward Johnstone said the video-game makers could not foresee what Michael, then 14, would do. He also said the games are media not subject to product-liability law.

No 'rational explanation'

"This was a tragic situation, but tragedies such as this simply defy rational explanation, and the courts should not pretend otherwise," Judge Johnstone wrote in his opinion, released last Thursday.

His opinion was based heavily on a similar case that arose a decade ago, in which the Sixth US Circuit Court of Appeals held that the makers of Dungeons & Dragons, a popular role-playing game, were not liable for a McCracken County, Ky., teenager's suicide.

The parents of the three girls killed in the shootings said they would appeal.

"We feel very strongly this case needs to be heard before a jury," said Sabrina Steger. "We'll do everything possible to see it goes to a jury."

The Paducah shooting was among the first in a string of school shootings nationwide that also included Jonesboro, Ark.; Springfield, Ore.; and Littleton, Colo.

The lawsuit accused 25 companies of negligence for not warning consumers that content they made available could incite copycat violence.

'The Basketball Diaries'

Among the influences cited was the 1995 movie "The Basketball Diaries," starring Leonardo DiCaprio. In one scene, Mr. DiCaprio's character is in a drug-induced haze, imagining he is roaming the halls of his high school, firing shotgun blasts.

Defendants included Time Warner Inc., Polygram Film Entertainment Distribution Inc., Palm Pictures, Island Pictures, and New Line Cinema, all of which were involved in "The Basketball Diaries" - as well as Atari Corp., Nintendo of America, Sega of America Inc., and Sony Computer Entertainment.

"We obviously are gratified with the decision," said Doug Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association, a trade group that represents 33 video-game developers. "We said from the outset that there is no basis in law or in fact for this suit. As much as we'd like to find easy answers, there are none."

The teenage gunman pleaded guilty but mentally ill to murder and other charges, and was sentenced to life in prison.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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