A joint lawsuit filed by the parents of two Saugus High School students killed in a November 2019 on-campus shooting can proceed to trial, according to a tentative ruling obtained by The Signal.
The case tentatively has a starting trial date for Oct. 30, but that could change after Friday’s hearing on the ruling.
The parents of Dominic Blackwell, 14, and Gracie Muehlberger, 15, filed a complaint against the William S. Hart Union High School District for general negligence, wrongful death, premises liability, survivor cause of action and negligence causing emotional distress, on Nov. 16, 2020, one year and two days after Nathaniel Berhow fatally shot Dominic and Gracie and wounded three others and then killed himself with a .45-caliber handgun.
The plaintiffs allege the William S. Hart Union High School District insufficiently supervised the campus and provided an insufficient security response upon the start of the shooting, according to court records.
Additionally, the Muehlbergers alleged “the L.A. County Coroner’s Office improperly released identifying information on their daughter to news outlets after the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department placed a ‘security hold’ on the file, thereby blocking the release of such information.”
The ruling, expected to be issued Friday in Department F49 in Chatsworth by Judge Stephen Pfahler, dismisses some of the claims brought forth but found there were enough questions about the facts of the case to merit a jury trial.
A judge dismissed the claims against the district over issues of breach of duty over the shooting incident.
“While circumstances of a dangerous condition generally constitute a question of fact, the court finds no supporting evidence meeting the standard for an attribute of the property contributing to the injuries,” according to the tentative ruling. “The motion for summary adjudication is GRANTED as to the premises liability cause of action only. In summary, the motion for summary judgment is denied, and the motion for summary adjudication is granted as to the dangerous condition on public property claim, and denied as to the issues of duty, breach and causation.”
In a phone interview Thursday, Nick Hane, an attorney for the Blackwells, mentioned a number of warning signs he says the district ignored in the days, weeks and months leading up to the incident — an assailant who was violently abused by a father, who also ended up killing himself two years before the shooting, which led to Berhow going in and out of the Child Protective Services system.
The plaintiffs learned that, prior to the shooting, Berhow had recently quit the track team, his grades began to fail, he was cutting himself and he exhibited warning signs that his girlfriend and others had picked up on — but he never reached out nor received counseling services from the district, according to Hane. He said the district has not disputed those claims.
Hart district board President Bob Jensen said by phone Thursday that because the lawsuit is part of active, ongoing litigation, he is not able to comment on the situation.
One of the claims under dispute from the time of the shooting is whether the district had adequate reporting means for concerned students. Hane said the district had recently switched resource officers, and with that change, there was a new tip line for students, but the previous number was posted around campus that didn’t work. He said the district has disputed that claim and said there were alternative means of anonymous reporting.
“That is a big part of the case,” Hane said, “for us though, it’s the lack of supervision and the lack of any mental health monitoring or services, the lack of campus safety.”
Hane also said footage showed Berhow was on campus for 40 minutes with a gun on the morning of the shooting, and there were two campus supervisors there, one who was required to fill a vending machine, for 20 minutes prior to the shooting. The school resource officer, who splits time between multiple campuses, was not present, he added.
Then-District Attorney Jackie Lacey declined to file charges against Berhow’s mother, Mami Matsuura-Berhow, in November 2020, after it was learned he committed the shooting with a ghost gun he made in his home.
Detectives presented charges of criminal storage of a firearm and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Mia Tretta, one of the three students who were wounded and survived the shooting, filed a separate lawsuit.