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Top VT officials remain in shootings lawsuit

A ruling by a Montgomery County Circuit Court has set the stage for discovery and trial in the two lawsuits filed in the wake of the deadly 2007 shootings on the Virginia Tech campus.

Virginia Tech president Charles Steger and former Executive Vice President James Hyatt remain as defendants in the lawsuits filed by families of two students killed in the rampage by Seung-Hui Cho.

Also remaining in the case are the former head of the school’s counseling center and two staff members. Several other defendants were dismissed in a Jan. 12 opinion letter by Franklin County Circuit Judge William N. Alexander II as he decided preliminary defenses including sovereign immunity and absence of duty.

The case is Peterson, Adm’r v. Commonwealth of Virginia (VLW 010-8-010).

Alexander determined that Steger and Hyatt were entitled to sovereign immunity against ordinary negligence, but he found the allegations of delayed warnings after the initial campus shootings were sufficient to establish gross negligence. “Plaintiffs have alleged that these defendants knew that criminal assaults had occurred, including one murder, on the university campus, which would indicate a probability of imminent harm to other students or members of the university community,” Alexander wrote.

Alexander also allowed claims to go forward against Robert Miller, former director of Tech’s Cook Counseling Center, and two staffers. The lawsuits claim the mental health professionals failed to provide proper services to Cho after early warnings about his erratic behavior.
“While we respectfully disagree with the Court’s ruling, we remain confident that the facts will show that the therapists at the Cook Counseling Center were not negligent and were not the cause of the tragedy that occurred some sixteen months after Mr. Cho was treated at the Cook Counseling Center,” said Richmond attorney Edward J. McNelis, counsel for the counseling center defendants.
The Virginia attorney general’s office, which represents the Virginia Tech officials, offered no comment. A spokesman cited a standing policy of not commenting on pending litigation.
Dismissed from the lawsuits are members of Tech’s emergency policy group, other than Steger and Hyatt, the New River Valley Community Services Board and two board officials.
Alexander said the emergency policy group members had no authority to issue an alert or warning—only Steger and Hyatt had that authority, he found. Alexander held the community services board and its officials were protected by sovereign immunity and claims of improper treatment were insufficient to state a case for gross negligence.
In his opinion, Alexander first considered the argument that the Tech officials were entitled to “absolute immunity” as high ranking government officials. None of them qualified, Alexander concluded, after noting the law is not clear on who can be considered sufficiently high ranking.
Alexander noted the Tech officials do not administer any policy or regulation affecting the state as a whole. “The duties of these officials are important, affect a number of people, both students and employees, in different locations across the state, but are limited solely to running Virginia Tech,” Alexander wrote.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Robert T. Hall of Reston said he anticipates a trial date will be set after an order is entered based on the Jan. 12 opinion letter.

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