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Families of victims and survivors of Capital Gazette attack sue The Baltimore Sun and others, calling deaths preventable

Hours after a jury found the man who gunned down five people in the Capital Gazette newsroom criminally responsible for their deaths, lawsuits were made public alleging The Baltimore Sun and its parent, which own the Annapolis newspapers, did not do enough to prevent the attack.

The families of slain Capital Gazette employees Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters, along with most of the surviving employees who were in the newsroom during Jarrod Ramos’ rampage on June 28, 2018, alleged in two lawsuits that the newspaper had ample warning of the dangers Ramos posed and failed to protect the staff.

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“Had Defendants taken reasonable steps to protect The Capital and its employees, Ramos would have been detected and stopped prior to entering The Capital’s newsroom, and he may never have attempted the assault at all,” lawyers for representatives of McNamara, Winters and Hiaasen alleged in their complaint, calling the assault “a preventable tragedy.”

James P. Ulwick, a Baltimore attorney representing The Baltimore Sun and parent Tribune Publishing Co., declined to comment on the substance of lawsuit.

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“We recognize and share the continued grief of the victims’ family members, friends and colleagues,” Tribune spokeswoman Renee Mutchnik said in a statement. “The five lives lost in this senseless attack always will serve as a reminder of the important role that independent journalism provides for communities across America.”

The jury’s verdict in the criminal trial in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court not only provided some small bit of relief for the victims’ family members, who applauded its decision, but revealed a flurry of civil court activity that had been hidden from public viewing for nearly a month.

Court records show that the lawsuits were filed June 24, before a three-year statute of limitations on such suits ran out, along with a request by the plaintiffs to seal the civil case while Ramos’ trial played out.

Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Glenn L. Klavans unsealed the civil record late Thursday afternoon.

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In an earlier motion to unseal the records — that also was sealed by the Anne Arundel courts — Ulwick defended the newspapers from allegations that they could have stopped Ramos’ assault.

“(The) Newspapers deny these allegations, and believe that the facts will show that they acted reasonably under the circumstances,” attorneys for The Sun wrote.

In fighting to unseal the suits, The Sun argued such actions violate the mission of a free and open press. According to the filing, The Sun and its attorneys were in the unusual position of fighting to make public allegations that the news organization argues are untrue.

“Nevertheless, newspapers recognize that the allegations made by plaintiffs in this case are newsworthy, and will be matters of interest to their readers,” the attorneys wrote. “As advocates for a free and independent press, and for open and transparent judicial proceedings, newspapers cannot agree to an order which limits access to this matter after the conclusion of jury selection in the Ramos trial.”

Also named as defendants were Bestgate Corporate Center LLC and St. John Properties Inc., the owner and manager of the 888 Bestgate Road building, where the murders took place. Representatives from the companies, which are affiliated, did not return phone calls seeking comment Friday.

Attorneys for the Annapolis law firm of Bowman Jarashow Law, representing the estates of McNamara, Winters and Hiaasen, along with many of the surviving victims, did not return calls for comment.

Attorney Stephen D. Silverman, representing the estates of Smith and Fischman, released a statement criticizing “the negligence of the Tribune Publishing Company and St. John’s Properties.”

The Capital Gazette was not included in the lawsuit.

Attorney Mark Snyder of Baltimore, who has been practicing for 45 years, said that under Maryland law, workers injured on the job have virtually no right to sue their employer because of workers’ compensation rules.

“I wouldn’t have sued The Capital, and I’m assuming that’s why they didn’t either,” said Snyder, who has no connection to the lawsuits. “There is no chance they could win. In my opinion, The Sun, or the Tribune, as the statutory owners, I believe also have the same protections. I think this will be tossed out.”

Snyder said he believes the only exceptions would be if the employer committed intentional acts, or gross negligence that led directly to the attack.

The lawsuits allege The Sun not only failed to provide adequate security against the routine threats faced by journalists worldwide on a daily basis, but was particularly lax in responding to the increasing and more violent threats leveled by Ramos against The Capital Gazette and specific employees around 2012.

Ramos was angry that The Capital wrote about his legal troubles, including protective orders and criminal charges that he harassed and threatened a woman with who he had a brief acquaintance. When his lawsuits against the newspaper, attorneys and even the woman he harassed failed, Ramos took to Twitter and other mediums to amplify his threats.

The lawsuits allege that Ramos publicly threatened to shoot former Capital Gazette publisher Tom Marquardt, and threatened to “cripple” the company. He also specifically targeted Eric Hartley, a former reporter who wrote about Ramos’ initial legal troubles in 2011, triggering his rage.

“On October 9, 2012, Ramos filed an amended complaint in his defamation case, stating in part that ‘If not illegal, [he] would kill the living body of Hartley,’” the lawsuit filed by family of McNamara, Winters and Hiaasen said.

The threats continued until at least late 2015, according to one of the lawsuits, citing a Nov. 29, 2015, tweet from Ramos to Hartley that the lawsuit said shows, “Clearly, Ramos was threatening to rape and murder employees of The Capital.”

Baltimore Sun Media acquired the Capital Gazette newspapers from Landmark Media Enterprises in 2014.

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