Va. Tech cleared in wrongful-death lawsuit over 2007 massacre

By Evan Burgos, NBC News – 11/1/2013

Virginia’s Supreme Court on Thursday said Virginia Tech University was not negligent in failing to warn students as a gunman roamed campus in 2007, killing 32 people.

A lower court jury found last year that the state university had been slow to issue a campus warning as the massacre unfolded.

The trial judge had instructed the jury that there was “special relationship” between the school and slain students Erin Nicole Peterson and Julia Kathleen Pryde, since the women were “business invitees” of the university. The women’s families filed the wrongful death lawsuit.

In rejecting the decision, the Supreme Court said that “even if there was a special relationship between the Commonwealth and students of Virginia Tech … there was no duty for the Commonwealth to warn students about the potential for criminal acts by third parties.”

The two students were among 32 people were killed before the gunman, Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho, committed suicide after a two-hour rampage on the university’s Blacksburg campus.

The women’s families were the only ones not to join an $11 million settlement from the commonwealth, agreed to in 2008. The families sued the commonwealth for negligence, arguing that because campus police, employed by the state, did not notify students directly following the first shootings, which occurred at about 7:30 a.m., that it was responsible for the ensuing deaths.

In March 2012, a jury ruled in the families’ favor, awarding each $4 million. That figure was later reduced to $100,000 by a judge, in accordance with a state statute.

According to the court’s written opinion Thursday, once university President Charles W. Stegar learned that a shooting had taken place, at about 8 a.m., when the first two victims were found, he called a meeting of university officials and campus safety to assess the situation. At this time, the opinion said, university police believed the incident to be “domestic in nature,” and though a suspect had not been apprehended, did not believe the general campus was in danger.

Virginia Tech wanted to notify the families of the initial victims before releasing information of the shooting publicly, according to the court’s opinion. By 9:30 a.m., a campus-wide email had been sent to notify the university community that a shooting had taken place in a dorm room. About 15 minutes later, the worst of the shooting had commenced in an engineering building.

“It cannot be said that it was known or reasonably foreseeable that students in Norris Hall would fall victim to criminal harm,” the opinion said.

A written statement released by Virginia’s attorney general’s office expressed sympathy for the families, but agreed with the ruling.

“While words cannot express the tremendous sympathy we have for the families who lost their loved ones in the Virginia Tech shootings of 2007, including the Prydes and the Petersons, the Virginia Supreme Court has found what we have said all along to be true: The Commonwealth and its officials at Virginia Tech were not negligent on April 16, 2007. [Seung-Hui Cho] was the lone person responsible for this tragedy,” said Brian Gottstein, director of communication for attorney general’s office, in the statement.

“We’re very disappointed with the outcome,” said Steven Emmert, an appeals lawyer representing the families. He did not wish to comment further.

Reuters contributed to this report.