Witnesses of Buffalo mass shooting file suit against social media and gun companies

BUFFALO, N.Y. — In a rare legal move, more than a dozen people who last year witnessed a white gunman open fire and kill 10 Black people at a Tops grocery store in Buffalo have filed a lawsuit over the trauma they endured.

The lawsuit, brought Tuesday by the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety and exclusively obtained by NBC News, names multiple defendants, including YouTube and Reddit, online spaces where the shooter was allegedly radicalized, as well as the retailer that sold the shooter’s gun and the manufacturer of his body armor. The suit, which also names the shooter’s parents, was filed in New York Supreme Court.

The 16 plaintiffs, most of whom worked at Tops but also some customers, survived the racist attack but had to endure moments of terror that left lasting effects, such as nightmares, trouble sleeping, anxiety and paranoia, the lawsuit alleges. Some, according to the lawsuit, have even been unable to return to work at Tops or other jobs.

“While I escaped without a bullet wound, the terror that the shooter inflicted on me and other survivors will live with us forever. It’s my hope that this lawsuit can help to not only hold the individuals and entities accountable who allowed the shooter to carry out his racist rampage, but that we can also change the conversation around who constitutes a victim following tragedies like this one,” said Fragrance Harris Stanfield, who worked at Tops with her daughter, according to a news release from Everytown.

The plaintiffs’ ordeals included hearing gunshots and running haphazardly while trying to find a hiding place and dropping to the ground as bullets whizzed, according to the suit. Unclear exactly where the gunfire was coming from, many just prayed they would see their loved ones again.

The lawsuit, which was announced Wednesday afternoon at a news conference in Buffalo, names RMA Armament, a body armor manufacturer, and Vintage Firearms LLC, a gun retailer, as defendants, in addition to YouTube (as well as its parent companies Google and Alphabet) and Reddit.

“The death, terror and other harm suffered by plaintiffs was made possible by the companies and individuals who facilitated and equipped the shooter for his racist attack. As a result of their negligent and unlawful actions, the shooter gained the racist motivation, tools and knowledge necessary for him to commit the mass shooting at Tops,” the lawsuit alleges.

None of the defendants were immediately available Wednesday for comment, except for YouTube. 

A spokesperson for the company said in a statement: “We have the deepest sympathies for the victims and families of the horrific attack at Tops grocery store in Buffalo last year. Through the years, YouTube has invested in technology, teams, and policies to identify and remove extremist content. We regularly work with law enforcement, other platforms, and civil society to share intelligence and best practices.” 

During Wednesday’s news conference, Stanfield said she constantly replays the mass shooting in her head and asks herself questions like if her daughter would have died, would it have been her fault? And was she supposed to die?

She added that her daily memory, for routine things, no longer works like it used to.

“I used to have a very sharp memory. They said a memory like an elephant. I could play a day like a tape recording,” she said. “That’s how clear my memory used to be. But it’s not like that anymore. I can barely remember what I’m doing later.”

The suit, which alleges negligent infliction of emotional distress, seeks unspecified damages from the companies as well as the cost of their legal fees.

As mass shootings in the U.S. have increased, so have the lawsuits pointing responsibility at gun companies and others. But so far the vast majority of that litigation has come from victims injured during the tragedies or family members of those who didn’t survive. 

Wednesday’s lawsuit, however, focuses on witnesses of the Buffalo shooting who survived unscathed or with minimal physical injuries, but say they were emotionally traumatized. 

“Given that there was an injury, even though a psychological injury, it’s a small step for a lawyer to figure out a basis for suing to receive damages for that injury, just like a person who’s physically injured,” said Robert Spitzer, a gun policy expert and former chairman of the political science department at the State University of New York at Cortland. 

That legal strategy, according to Spitzer, is sure to catch on.

“When you think about the number of people who are emotionally affected by a mass shooting, it’s a pretty big number,” he said.

Despite being an uncommon legal maneuver, the lawsuit is not unprecedented following a high-profile mass shooting. A class-action lawsuit was filed in 2017 on behalf of three people who attended the Route 91 Harvest Moon Festival in Las Vegas, the worst mass shooting in modern American history in which at least 59 people were killed and hundreds more were injured.

The plaintiffs in that case brought the lawsuit “on behalf of themselves and on behalf of all persons who tragically suffered emotional distress as a result of the shooting that occurred,” the suit said.

The defendant in that lawsuit was a bump stock manufacturer. Bump stocks allow semi-automatic rifles, such as the popular AR-15-style weapons, to fire more quickly. The gun accessory was used in the mass shooting.

It’s not clear how the case ended. It was moved to federal court and was closed in September 2020, according to court records. 

In July, families of the victims killed during the Tops shooting — which included many of the same defendant’s as this week’s lawsuit — sued social media companies, weapon manufacturers and gun retailers as well. 

On May 14, 2022, the gunman, who was 18 at the time, drove more than 200 miles to a Tops Friendly Markets with a horrific plan. In a racist tirade he published online, the shooter admitted to researching what zip codes had the highest population of Black residents. He also detailed his belief in the “great replacement theory,” a false conspiracy that nonwhite immigrants are slowly displacing white Americans.

Dressed in tactical gear and body armor, the shooter used an assault-style rifle to gun down employees and customers. He also wore a helmet with a GoPro camera on it and broadcast parts of the attack for approximately two minutes on Twitch.

He was sentenced in February to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The Tops survivors’ attorneys also filed another lawsuit Tuesday against the same companies on behalf of Wayne Jones, the only child of Celestine Chaney, a 65-year-old woman who was shopping at Tops for her favorite dessert, strawberry shortcake, when the gunman fatally shot her last year, according to the suit. 

Jones said at the media briefing Wednesday that his mother gave birth to him when she was 16 and both her parents died before she turned 20.

“She raised me and raised herself by herself,” he said.

Jones’ mother had survived three aneurysms and breast cancer, he said.

Jones said he’s seen video of the carnage and can’t shake images of his mother being fatally shot.

“This is my reality. I can’t get this out of my mind. It goes nowhere,” he said.