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Bill would give government automatic pre-trial appeal

A General Assembly bill apparently aimed at lawsuits against Virginia Tech would give the state government a pre-trial appeal of right to the Virginia Supreme Court whenever a trial court denies the defense of sovereign immunity.

Senate Bill 1381 is sponsored by Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Rocky Mount. The bill contains language that would apply its provisions to pending cases, extending the measure’s 30-day deadline for filing a notice of appeal. There are three actions pending against Virginia Tech officials where judges have denied pleas of sovereign immunity, including two arising out of the shootings of April 16, 2007.

For an interlocutory appeal under current law, the parties must agree it is in their best interests to seek a pre-trial appeal. The trial court must certify there is no clear, controlling precedent. The appellate court then has discretion on whether or not to accept the appeal.

Stanley’s bill would give the Commonwealth and its employees an “immediate interlocutory appeal of right to the Supreme Court of Virginia” whenever a circuit court denied a plea of sovereign immunity by the state or a state employee.

Robert Hall, the lawyer for two families who have sued Virginia Tech employees in connection with the 2007 shootings, said he was approached by the lawyer for VT president Charles Steger about a possible interlocutory appeal of the sovereign immunity ruling in those cases. “We declined because it would delay the case even further and we saw no merit in the particular kind of sovereign immunity contentions they were making,” Hall said.

Stanley told The Roanoke Times he sees the measure as evenhanded for plaintiffs and defense.

The two Virginia Tech shooting lawsuits are scheduled for a 10-day trial beginning Sept. 26. A lawsuit against VT officials based on the suicide of a student is set for a Nov. 7 trial in Fairfax County Circuit Court.

By Peter Vieth

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