Campus shooting lawsuit dismissed

By Julian Routh | Asst. News Editor

A federal judge Saturday dismissed the lawsuits of three former Duquesne basketball players who sued the University in the aftermath of a 2006 shooting that injured five players at a school-sponsored dance.

Stuard Baldonado, Shawn James and Kojo Mensah filed lawsuits to receive money for the damages they suffered as a result of the shooting, asserting that Duquesne did not employ a “sufficient number of officers present on Academic Walk” that night and “failed to employ reasonable measures to abate the risk of a criminal element,” a 47-page report filed by U.S. District Judge David Cercone said.

In the report, Cercone ruled that Duquesne “did not have a duty to prevent or protect plaintiff from the spontaneous, criminal shooting” and could only be held responsible for the occurrences “under limited circumstance which are not satisfied here.”

The shooting occurred on Sept. 17, 2006 after a dance sponsored by the Black Student Union. The players, along with teammates Sam Ashaolu and Aaron Jackson, sustained injuries after two non-students opened fire outside of the Towers dorm after 2 a.m.

Baldonado was shot in the arm, Mensah was shot in the shoulder and James was struck by two bullets in his left foot. James, who had to undergo surgery to have one of the bullets removed, claimed in the lawsuit that his injuries had a “detrimental effect” on his basketball career and earning capacity.

The lawsuit also alleged that the entrance procedure at the front door of the dance, which allowed attendees to bring third-party guests, was deficient. The plaintiffs claimed the University “failed to abate [the risk of a threat] by permitting a BSU member to act as ‘head of security’ at the entrance to the dance.”

In response to the claims, Cercone ruled that Baldonado, James and Mensah “failed to establish that at prior student-sponsored campus events defendant provided more or better security than what was provided that night.”

“The University had fulfilled its legal duties in terms of providing security for the students.”

Steven Zoffer

Steven Zoffer, one of Duquesne’s attorneys, said the University is “pleased” with the decision.

“We think the judge carefully considered the evidence as has a previous state court judge, and found consistent with the law that the University had fulfilled its legal duties in terms of providing security for the students,” Zoffer said.

Zoffer also said that universities are no more or less immune from “the ills that plague our society,” including gun violence. However, Duquesne “has always been a safe and secure campus,” he said.

“Duquense is really a leader when it comes to the safety of its students, and it’s the number one priority,” Zoffer said. “I think this is a decision that validates the safety and security of Duquesne’s campus and it can be very proud of the type of security it provides for its faculty, staff, and students.”

In response to questions raised in the lawsuit about security at school-sponsored events, Duquesne public safety director Tom Hart said the department considers the time of day, the day of the week, the type of event and whether or not non-students are allowed to attend the event when determining what security to assign.

“Something that’s going on, for example, on the weekend going until midnight is obviously more of a concern than a breakfast meeting Monday morning,” Hart said.

University spokeswoman Bridget Fare stresses that Duquesne’s campus is safe.

“[The shooting] was an unprecedented event,” Fare said. “Safety has always been and will continue to be a top campus priority.”

Teresa Toriseva, the attorney representing Baldonado, James and Mensah, failed to return The Duke’s phone calls.

The shooters, William B. Holmes II and Derek Lee, pleaded guilty to multiple offenses. Holmes was sentenced to 40 years in prison, Lee was sentenced to 14 years in prison and Brittany Jones, a Duquesne student who assisted the gunmen, was sentenced to two years.

Ashaolu sued Duquesne in 2010, also claiming that the school had a duty to provide security for those who were on the campus the night of the shooting. Judge Ronald W. Folino dismissed Ashaolu’s lawsuit on the grounds that the University “did not undertake to provide a level of security that was designed to create a gun-free environment,” a ruling that Cercone acknowledged in his report.

The ruling in Ashaolu’s case was later upheld in the state Superior Court. Ashaolu, who was struck by two bullets in his head and neck, underwent a rehabilitation program at Mercy Hospital after the shooting to regain basic function, according to his personal website. A document on the website revealed a ledger of medical bills totaling nearly $130,000.