/This is mercy, not justice: Las Vegas shooting victims to split $800M. But how much is pain worth?
This is mercy, not justice: Las Vegas shooting victims to split $800M. But how much is pain worth?

This is mercy, not justice: Las Vegas shooting victims to split $800M. But how much is pain worth?


On Oct. 1, 2017, a gunman perched on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas opened fire on thousands of country music fans enjoying the open-air Route 91 Harvest Festival.
The ensuing carnage from the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history echoed that of a war zone.
Chelsea Romo, 30, a single mom from Temecula, California, no longer has her left eye. Jason McMillan, 37, a sheriff’s deputy from Riverside, California, took a bullet to the spine. Heather Melton, 51, an orthopedic surgeon from Paris, Tennessee, lost her husband, Sonny.
All told, 58 concert attendees died, more than were 800 injured and thousands more experienced varying degrees of trauma. Some 4,500 plaintiffs retained attorneys to sue MGM Resorts International, Mandalay Bay’s parent company, citing the hotel’s lax security as the reason Stephen Paddock was able to bring 23 guns up to his suite.
After some controversial legal maneuvering, MGM agreed on Oct. 3 to settle with the plaintiffs and pay out $800 million. Now comes the delicate part — the moment when two retired judges working with input from lawyers will attempt to put a dollar figure on all that pain and suffering.
How much for the death of a spouse? How much for curtailed mobility? How much for emotional trauma? That raw calculus is scheduled to begin next month and the money is expected to be dispensed by late 2020.
Sonny and Heather Melton. Sonny was shot in the back as he and Heather ran from the shooter.
One veteran of mass tort cases — defined as involving loss or harm — offers a sober warning about the upcoming fiscal drama:Few will be happy.
“In my experience, justice, fairness, satisfaction, happiness, none of it enters into this equation,” says Kenneth Feinberg, whose Washington, D.C., law firm has administered some of the biggest victim compensation funds in recent memory, including $7.1 billion awarded to victims of the 9/11 attacks and $6.5 billion following the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
“The idea that money is an adequate substitute for loss or horrible injury is a fallacy,” says Feinberg. “This is mercy, not justice. You do the best you can. And whoever’s handling this should brace themselves for a lot of emotion and anger.”
That would be Jennifer Togliatti of Las Vegas and Louis Meisinger of Los Angeles, two retired judges now in the mediation field. Togliatti and Meisinger were proposed by attorneys for the plaintiffs in an unopposed motion that was approved by a Clark County, Nevada, district court judge on Nov. 12.
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Lawyers working for plaintiffs say that two mediators were chosen instead of one because of the complexity of the various cases. While one hails from the town where the incident happened, it was felt that the other should be from California given that many of the plaintiffs and their attorneys were from that state.
The judges declined a request for comment on how the valuation process works, citing an agreement made with attorneys for both MGM and the plaintiffs. But interviews with lawyers representing victims, as well as experts in the tort law field reveal some basics.
Shooting victims must opt into $800M fund
The first step, which will unfold over the next few months, is for victims to discuss with their attorneys the relative merits of opting into the $800 million settlement, which also requires them to waive any claims they have against MGM.
Opting out means being able to move ahead with an individual lawsuit, which must be filed by May 2020. But that approach should be weighed with care, says Craig Eiland, whose Austin, Texas-based firm is handling the cases of around 1,400 MGM shooting plaintiffs.
“It could run several million dollars to prepare your case for trial, and what if the damages you end of getting don’t support that cost?” says Eiland, adding that he anticipates most clients will agree to opt-in so they can move on with their lives. “There are risks in not participating in the settlement.”
While plaintiffs are deliberating that choice — a large number of opt-outs would also mean the pot grows for those opting in — the two judges overseeing the claims administration process will create what amounts to a compensation menu, which sometimes can result in developing a points system for suffering.
At the high end, families whose loved one was killed at the concert. At the low end, those inside the festival gates but not subject to injury, treatment or post-traumatic stress syndrome.
In this October 2017 photo take just days after the mass shooting in Las Vegas, a woman prays beside 58 white crosses laid out in honor of for the victims those killed when a gunman opened fire from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel.
“Then it’s a sliding scale, people with more significant injuries, people who were shot or trampled, people who spent time in a hospital or maybe have ongoing care at home now,” says Eiland. “Once these broad categories are set, my responsibility is to make sure we have all the information possible so the judges can make a financial judgment on each case based on things such as lost wages, medical bills and summaries of care.”
What each victim of the MGM shooting will get remains unknown. But simple math suggests that the pie is not overwhelming. If $800 million were to simply be divided equally among 4,500 people, that amounts to $178,000 per plaintiff.
By contrast, Feinberg notes that when he oversaw compensation from a variety of charity funds set up for victims of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, families of the four dead as well as two people who had to have both legs amputated each received $2.2 million. The 14 people who lost one limb got $1.2 million each.
Feinberg thinks the overall pool of money is so low that, were he involved in administering this case, he would focus on incidents of death, physical injury with a hospital stay and physical injury with outpatient treatment.
“I would eliminate compensation for mental anguish, as that’s often very hard to prove and there’s often a very fine line,” Feinberg says.
Attorney for MGM plaintiffs acknowledge that there will inevitably be unhappy clients, but add that reaching a settlement at least allows people to begin healing.
“Some people will wish they got more, we always wish we were getting more,” says Las Vegas attorney Robert Eglet, whose firm Eglet Adams represents roughly 2,500 of the plaintiffs in the case.
Nonetheless, Eglet applauds MGM for settling. “In my view, MGM has set the bar for corporate citizenship in this country,” he says. “This was the most devastating thing to ever happen to our city, and they stepped up.”
Eglet was among key plaintiff lawyers who spent the past February through September in mediation with MGM attorneys. That summit meeting led to the $800 million figure, the bulk of which will be paid by MGM’s insurance company.
MGM at first sued shooting victims
Prior to the settlement, MGM had taken a shockingly hardline approach. In 2018, MGM sued hundreds of victims on the grounds that it was immune from liability under a post-9/11 law known as Shield — or Support Antiterrorism by Fostering Effective Technologies Act — because the shooting should be considered an act of terrorism.
But the negative public image of taking on victims appears to have contributed to bringing MGM to the mediation table.
“Our goal has always been to resolve these matters so our community and the victims and their families can move forward in the healing process,” MGM chairman and CEO Jim Murren said in a statement announcing the settlement.
This photo, taken two days after the Oct. 1, 2017, mass shooting in Las Vegas, shows broken windows where a gunman perched to fire upon nearly 20,000 revelers who had gathered at an outdoor country music concert across the street from the Mandalay Bay hotel; 58 were killed and more than 800 were wounded.
USA TODAY reached out to more than a dozen MGM plaintiffs to ask what their expectations were going into the settlement distribution process. Although a number had done interviews over the past two years, victims either did not return calls and emails or explained through attorneys that with a settlement reached they were not inclined to talk.
A few did speak out when the settlement was announced. Their comments reflect the pain of what happened the night of the shooting but also hope for a redemptive future.
“The scars and injuries from that night can never be erased,” Sheriff’s deputy McMillan said in a statement released by his lawyer, Mark Robinson of Newport Beach-based Robinson Calcagnie.
McMillan has spent the past few years in rehabilitation and married the girlfriend he protected at the concert by acting as a human shield.
“I’m glad we could reach a resolution that allows us to put this nightmare behind us so our family can move forward,” he said.
In this Sept 24, 2018 picture, Chelsea Romo, who lost her eye in the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, poses for a portrait in San Diego. After losing her left eye and getting shot in the other, Romo was told it could take more than a year until she could see, if she regained her sight at all. But in a near miraculous recovery, the single mom of two can now see out of her right eye.
Romo appeared at a press conference alongside her attorney, Jim Frantz of San Diego-based Frantz Law Group. With strands of her long blond hair covering her left eye, Romo said she was grateful she could see her two young children after doctors initially told her she might go blind.
Technically, in settling the case MGM does not admit to any liability for the shooting. But Frantz said that while he was pleased the company had settled, he hoped MGM would make security a greater priority at its properties.
Romo echoed that, adding that beyond her upcoming financial settlement the safety of future concertgoers loomed large in her mind.
“The past can’t be changed, she said. “As far as going forward, if things could be safer and better that’s all I could ask for.”
How much will victims’ lawyers get?
Such altruistic sentiments aside, Romo and others are facing large medical bills associated with their treatment and rehabilitation. Even if some plaintiffs and their attorneys manage to successfully negotiate settlements that cover those costs, surprises lurk.
“In these sorts of cases, plaintiffs see a number and that becomes an expectation, only to then find that figure gets watered down and watered down by fees,” says Elizabeth Burch, professor at the University of Georgia School of Law and author of “Mass Tort Deals: Backroom Bargaining in Multidistrict Litigation.”
Burch says that attorneys fees in personal injury cases — where typically a lawyer will take a case without upfront payment but reaps the rewards if the client wins — can be as high as 45%. She also says a portion of the overall settlement is set aside for the firms administering it, which include those of the two judges, as well as BrownGreer, a Virginia-based claims administration firm.
In this Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018 photo, Jason McMillan poses for a picture at his home in Menifee, Calif. in September 2018. The 37-year-old Southern California sheriff's deputy was shot at the Route 91 Harvest Festival while trying to shield his girlfriend from the gunfire raining from a nearby high-rise. He suffered liver and lung wounds and had a bullet in his spine.
Burch says it is unlikely the individual payout amounts will ever be publicly revealed.
“Not even the plaintiffs should be aware of what others are getting, although sometimes they do reach out to each other,” she says. “Hopefully, there’s some horizontal equity since the same people are handing it all out. But in the end, one person has PTSD and another suffered loss of life, how do you compare that?”
She says mass tort cases usually are about “tempering your clients’ expectations” when it comes to financial windfalls. If not, plaintiffs can take matters into their own hands.
Recipients of one recent $8 billion settlement — the result of lawsuits brought against seven companies by 100,000 women who had adverse affects from pelvic mesh procedures undertaken to battle urinary incontinence — were so displeased with how much money had been eaten away by legal fees they sued their attorneys.
In fact, Herring & Panzer, a Dallas law firm, has set up a website aimed at women looking to join its investigation of cases “in which lawyers for victims may have failed to recover all available benefits or may have charged clients too much in fees or expenses.”
Robert Eglet, a veteran Las Vegas attorney, is handling upwards of 2,500 cases related to the Oct. 2017 shooting in Las Vegas, in which 58 were killed and more than 800 injured. Eglet was among a handful of attorneys who sat down with MGM lawyers to hammer out a $800 million settlement agreement on Oct. 3 of this year. That sum now will be split up among 4,500 plaintiffs with the help of two retired judges.
Attorneys representing plaintiffs in the MGM cases declined to specify what percentage of their clients’ fees they were planning to take.
“As with any practice, fees are dependent on fairness and the amount of work done on the case,” says Pat McGroder III, an attorney with Phoenix-based Beus Gilbert.
McGroder is handling around a dozen MGM cases, including that of Jovanna Calzadillas, 32, who was shot in the brain at the concert and has spent two years learning to walk and talk again.
McGroder says his focus is on making sure his clients’ cases get a fair hearing with the claims administrators so they receive a maximum payout.
“Attention needs to be paid to the merits of each and every case,” he says.
In this April 1, 2018 file photo, people attend a vigil for victims and survivors of a mass shooting in Las Vegas. Around this time, the unprecedented move from MGM Resorts International to sue hundreds of victims of last year's mass shooting in Las Vegas using an obscure law never before tested in court has been framed by the casino-operator as an effort to avoid years of costly litigation. But the legal maneuver ultimately drew heavy criticism, leading the hotel owner to mediate with plaintiffs' lawyers resulting in an $800 million settlement on Oct. 3 of this year.
One lawyer familiar with personal injury cases says he’s sure all the plaintiffs whose dream of seeing country singer Jason Aldean turned into a nightmare would prefer not to be assigning a dollar figure to their agony.
“It’s important to for the public to know this isn’t about greed or winning the legal lottery, because I don’t know a single client wouldn’t pass up the money for a time machine trip back,” says Tim Hale of Santa Barbara,California-based Nye, Stirling, Hale & Miller, who specializes in childhood sexual abuse cases and recently won a settlement against the Boy Scouts of America.
“That said, handing someone a check for $500,000 or $1 million can be a very positive thing,” he says. “I simply tell them, ‘I can’t change what happened to you, but you can use this to try and hit the reset button.’”
Follow USA TODAY national correspondent Marco della Cava: @marcodellacava
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