Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Sylvia Seegrist: Guilty But Insane

Second Trial

In a civil action against Seegrist in October 1987, relatives of her victims, as well as those who had been wounded, filed a gross negligence lawsuit against the owners of the Springfield Mall, Haverford State Hospital, the township police department, the corporation that owned Best Products, and a mental health counselor, on the basis that they had collectively failed to take precautions to ensure the community's safety. Despite the fact that it seemed like a long shot, evidence was brought out that Seegrist had apparently made threatening gestures in days leading up to her rampage, and that some people were aware of her violent history.

Rodger Mutzel filed the lawsuit on behalf of victims' families.
Rodger Mutzel filed the
lawsuit on behalf of
victims' families.
The defense used a "shadow jury," assembled by a jury consultant company, to provide them with feedback about the likelihood of the actual jury finding the defendants liable. 

Lane and Gregg write that Seegrist had visited the McDonald's in San Ysidro, California, where the year before her rampage, James Huberty had taken an assault weapon. She apparently had indicated that she wanted to do something similar.

In that incident, Huberty had yelled to the patrons, "Everybody, get down on the floor or I'll kill somebody."  They had attempted to comply, but the impatient Huberty started shooting anyway. He was there to take some lives. After ten minutes of this shooting frenzy, many people lay dead and wounded, most of them teenagers or children. An employee in the kitchen managed to phone the police, and eventually, a SWAT officer shot and killed Huberty.

His final victim tally was 20 dead and 20 wounded, one of whom would die later, making twenty-one dead. It was deemed the worst single-day incidence of mass killing in the country's history.

James Huberty
James Huberty
Like Seegrist, Huberty had suffered from depression, and possibly something worse. His wife, Etna, had tried to persuade him the day before to see a psychiatrist. She knew that he'd been hearing voices. He'd been unemployed for several weeks and no matter how hard he tried he'd been unable to get on his feet. Huberty had grown increasingly morose over his failure and had called a local clinic, but they had failed to respond. So on the morning of July 18, after going to the zoo with his wife and daughter, he went out "hunting humans."

The story had made national headlines, and was played over and over again on television. Seegrist apparently saw it and felt inspired. That man had been angry, too. That man had wanted to pay someone back for all his pain.

She did not visit that McDonald's, however. Instead, she had gone into one near her and used her hand to make a gesture like she was shooting people, saying "I'm going to blow you all away." She had also said to Mall guards who escorted her away, "What happened in California was good. It should happen again."

The survivors and relatives believed that this behavior was a clear forewarning of what she would eventually do. In particular, Best Products and the mall should have been more careful.

The mall's attorneys protested that the laws would not have allowed them to seek commitment for Seegrist, and even if she had been detained, she would have gotten out again in short order, possibly even more dangerous than before. No one can predict what a person will do to endanger others in a public place and they should not be held accountable for every potential danger.

The jury apparently believed they could have done something to protect their customers better, for in February 1990, they awarded the plaintiffs damages. Just before the trial for determining the monetary amount, insurance companies settled for an undisclosed amount, but rumors placed it at over $3 million.

Unlike the real jury, the shadow jury had decided that the companies were not financially liable.