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Va. Tech verdict likely not the last legal word

The Associated Press//March 14, 2012

Va. Tech verdict likely not the last legal word

The Associated Press//March 14, 2012//

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Judge William Alexander reads instructions to the jury in Montgomery County Circuit Court in Christiansburg on Wednesday, March 14 (AP Photo/The Roanoke Times, Matt Gentry)

CHRISTIANSBURG, Va. (AP) — After a jury concluded Wednesday that Virginia Tech officials were negligent in their actions leading up to the 2007 deadly mass shooting, the state was giving strong signals of appealing the case while the plaintiff’s lawyer highlighted the significance of the case for future claims against state schools.

The verdict in the wrongful death lawsuit is the latest of three decisions faulting the university for its actions on April 16, 2007, when it hesitated in letting students know of a gunman on campus who ultimately fatally shot 32 people before killing himself.

Jurors sided with the parents of two students slain in the massacre — Julia Pryde and Erin Peterson — that officials should have known the campus was at risk without a gunman in custody. The parents said the botched response led to the deaths of their daughters.

The jury determined the Prydes and Petersons each deserved $4 million, but the award is likely to be sharply reduced. State law – the Virginia Tort Claims Act – requires it to be capped at $100,000, the same amount the families would have recovered if they had accepted the state’s settlement.

Still, the amount of the award mattered little to the two families.

“We were looking for truth for a long time,” Harry Pryde said outside the courthouse that’s less than 10 miles from Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus. “We persevered and we got some truth today.”

“The parents didn’t start this with money in mind,” said Robert T. Hall, an attorney for the parents. “The money is symbolic to how obvious it was to the local jury that a warning should have been given.”

Hall praised the decision by Judge William N. Alexander III to instruct the jury that VT had a “special relationship” with its students. Hall said Alexander’s ruling raised the school’s duty to one of “ordinary care for reasonably foreseeable risks of harm.”

The ruling, he said, “may set some good law” for claims against state schools.

Ordinarily, there is no duty to protect a victim from an attack by a third party. In a series of decisions, including a 2006 opinion involving an innkeeper, the Supreme Court of Virginia has ruled that a duty to protect from third parties arises when there is a special relationship between the defendant and the victim.

Alexander found Virginia Tech had a special relationship with its students based, in part, on a state statute , Virginia Code § 23-122, charging the school’s board with the “protection and safety of students.”

If the state appeals the verdict, Hall said a cross-appeal would address Alexander’s decision to dismiss Steger as a defendant. Virginia Tech spokesman Mark Owczarski said after the verdict that the school would review the case with the attorney general’s office before deciding on any further options.

“We are disappointed with today’s decision and stand by our long-held position that the administration and law enforcement at Virginia Tech did their absolute best with the information available on April 16, 2007,” Owczarski said in a statement.

Likewise, the attorney general’s office said it was discussing “our options” with the Virginia Tech administration on an appeal.

Officials stuck with their argument that President Charles Steger and other university officials relied on the best information they had that morning involving the rampage by student gunman Seung-Hui Cho.

“The uncontradicted evidence presented at trial established that it was the unanimous decision of three law enforcement agencies that the mass shooting was simply not foreseeable,” the attorney general’s office said in a statement after the verdict. “Only with hindsight can one conclude that Cho’s unprecedented acts were foreseeable.”

The parents said their persistence is what their daughters would have wanted. They were the only eligible families to reject their share of an $11 million dollar settlement in 2008, instead taking the state to court in a wrongful death lawsuit.

The $11 million settlement was split between 24 families, excluding other disbursements such as $1.9 million set aside in a hardship fund. The state could not immediately provide a per-family breakdown of the settlement.

“When you know that something is right you’re not deterred from your course,” said Peterson, whose daughter Erin died in the mass shooting. “We wanted the truth from the very beginning and we got it. All I know is today we got what we wanted.”

The lawsuit Peterson and her husband filed along with the parents of Julia Pryde was the last pending litigation over the mass shootings. The state is appealing a separate fine handed down by federal education officials. No criminal charges were brought in the shootings. It’s not clear if any more civil lawsuits will be filed.

The state, the lone defendant in the case, argued that the university did all it could with the information available at the time. Steger and other university officials have said they initially believed the first two shootings were isolated instances of domestic violence, based on what police investigators told them.

“The university’s contention has been all along, to quote president Steger, ‘We did everything we could do,'” said Hall. “Obviously the jury didn’t buy that.”

The verdict was met by sobs from Celeste Peterson, while her husband Grafton appeared to quietly weep at the plaintiff’s table. They later embraced each other. The Prydes were stoic, as they were most of the eight-day trial.

“It’s so clear that a warning should have been given. The amount of the verdict speaks to that end,” Hall said.

During the trial, the parents’ attorneys portrayed campus police as leaping to the conclusion that the first two victims were shot by a jealous boyfriend, and that the gunman was not a threat to others.

They presented evidence that campus leaders, including Steger, heeded the police conclusion without question, then waited 2-1/2 hours before sending a campus-wide warning that a “shooting incident” had occurred. It did not say a gunman was still at large.

Police were pursuing the boyfriend of one of the dorm shooting victims as a “person of interest” at the expense of a campus-wide alert, the plaintiffs’ attorneys said.

Police stopped the boyfriend as he approached the Blacksburg campus and were questioning him as shots rang out at Norris Hall, where Cho chained shut the doors to the building and killed the students and faculty. He then killed himself.

Virginia Tech officials issued a specific warning that a “gunman is loose on campus” through emails to 37,000 people at 9:50 a.m., nearly 10 minutes after Cho began the Norris slaughter.

The parents’ attorneys also accused Steger and other administrators of trying to cover up their missteps by building official timelines that suggested they reacted more aggressively to the first shootings. Virginia Tech administrators said mistakes in the timelines were made in the fog of a horrific tragedy.

The state presented witnesses, including experts in campus security, who said campus police and administrators acted properly when they concluded the dorm shootings were domestic. The shootings occurred in an isolated area of the dorm, and the victims were a man and a woman clad in their undergarments and sleepwear.

Some parents have questioned why no one at Virginia Tech was held accountable for their actions, and Hall said the verdict sends a message to the university’s board.

“The board of visitors will not be able to ignore the verdict,” he said. “How they react to it is up to them.”
Celeste Peterson, one of the parents involved in the lawsuit, offered them additional advice: “Take care of the children. They came to your campus.”

– By Steve Szkotak. Additional reporting by Peter Vieth.

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