The families of two University of Alabama professors who were shot to death in a faculty meeting last year have filed wrongful death suits against the university provost and accused shooter Amy Bishop.
The spouses of Adriel D. Johnson Sr. and Maria Ragland Davis allege that University of Alabama-Huntsville Provost Vistasp M. Karbhari failed to enforce a safety policy that would have prevented the February 12, 2010, shooting that left three dead, including Davis and Johnson, and six others wounded.
The university said it was "saddened" by the decision to bring the lawsuit, and that blame should be placed "squarely on the perpetrator of this horrible crime."
In announcing the lawsuit last week, the families' lawyers said there were parallels between the Alabama school shooting and this month's massacre in Tucson, Arizona, at a meet and greet held by U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords outside a grocery store.
The investigation into the background of Jared Lee Loughner, the 22-year-old accused in the Arizona shooting, has revealed multiple reports from his former classmates and teachers of disturbing behavior on his part. He was suspended in September and told he could return if he received a doctor's note attesting to a clean bill of mental health.
The families of the Alabama shooting victims claim Bishop had amassed a documented record of mental instability at the school that officials should have acted on in order to prevent the shootings.
"The University of Alabama Huntsville Provost had clear obligations under UAH regulations, and standards adopted by universities nationwide following previous high-profile massacres, to obtain intervention by university police and counseling services in order to protect staff and students before Dr. Bishop was allowed into a staff meeting where she gunned down her colleagues," said the families co-counsel, Douglas Fierberg, who represented victims of shootings at Virginia Tech University and Columbine High School.
The lawsuits refer to a "life-safety" policy that Karbhari helped write, which mandates that staff members experiencing emotional, mental or psychological instability be referred to police, "who will in turn work with counseling professionals, in order to protect the lives and safety of persons on campus."
Karbhari was aware that Bishop fell into that category, the lawsuits allege, especially after she was denied tenure in 2009 and began exhibiting threatening behavior toward colleagues.
The lawsuits claim students and colleagues reported several instances of Bishop's "unsettling" behavior, among them, a student petition seeking to have her removed, and a dean who said he actively avoided her after the tenure decision because she was "harassing" and "hounding" him.
The reports were brought to Karbhari but he failed to act on them, the families claim. Moreover, the lawsuit alleges, had the university followed the regulations, it would have discovered that Bishop had been investigated in the 1986 shooting death of her brother, as well as a 1993 attempted bombing of a colleague at Harvard University, where Bishop worked before joining the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alabama-Huntsville in 2003.
The lawsuit also names Bishop's husband, James Anderson, for failing to prevent the shooting despite being aware of his wife's emotional instability and her anger over the tenure decision.
After the shooting, probes into the previous incidents were reopened. As a result, Bishop was charged with first-degree murder in the death of her brother, Seth Bishop. A separate investigation into the bombing at Harvard was closed without any charges against Bishop.
A statement from the University of Alabama-Huntsville expressed regret over the shooting but said neither the school nor Karbhari is to blame.
"While it is clear that blame for this loss must be placed squarely on the perpetrator of this horrible crime, the university has worked diligently to ensure that the families of our deceased employees receive all available, work-related benefits. The university is saddened by the decision to sue Dr. Vistasp Karbhari and does not agree that Dr. Karbhari, or anyone associated with the university, could have predicted or prevented this random act of violence."