The Virginia Supreme Court on Thursday overturned the jury verdict in a wrongful-death suit against the state in favor of the families of two students slain in the April 16, 2007, massacre at Virginia Tech.
Julia Pryde and Erin Peterson were among 32 students and faculty members killed by student Seung-Hui Cho in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
Last year, a Montgomery County Circuit Court jury awarded each family $4 million, which was reduced to $100,000 each by a state cap on damages. The state appealed the verdict, arguing that it should be overturned because of errors at trial.
In a 15-page ruling released Thursday, the justices agreed that under the facts of the case, there was no duty for state officials to warn students about the potential for criminal acts by third parties.
The justices dismissed, as moot, an appeal filed by the families seeking to have Charles W. Steger, the school president who was dismissed as a defendant in the lawsuit on a procedural technicality, reinstated as part of the suit.
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Most of the families of slain students accepted shares of an $11 million state settlement.
Tech spokesman Larry Hincker said the university is “very pleased that the Supreme Court recognized and corrected the errors of the lower court which resulted in a faulty jury verdict.”
Brian Gottstein, a spokesman for the Virginia Attorney General’s Office, said, “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.”
But, he added, “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. Cho was the lone person responsible for this tragedy.”
L. Steven Emmert, one of the lawyers for the families, said, “We are all very disappointed with the outcome.” He said that as of Thursday afternoon, he had not been in touch with the families.
In a statement Thursday, Steger said he was grateful for “the wise counsel” from Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and others in his office “throughout the lengthy fallout from this wrenching tragedy.” Said Steger: “Cuccinelli was personally engaged, for which I will be forever grateful.”
Still unresolved are $32,500 in fines levied by the U.S. Department of Education against Tech after the university was found in violation of the federal Clery Act, which requires timely warnings of threats on campus.
Tech’s delay in issuing a warning after the first two killings resulted initially in two fines totaling $55,000, which an administrative law judge dismissed on an appeal by Tech. Last year, Education Secretary Arne Duncan reinstated one $27,500 fine and remanded the other back to the judge, who reduced it to $5,000.
The case remains on appeal before Duncan.
The families contended that a special relationship existed between state employees and the students; that the officials had a duty to warn the students of a 7:30 a.m. shooting of students in a dormitory and that their failure to do so led to the deaths of others.
Police initially believed the first two shootings were domestic-related and that a victim’s boyfriend was a suspect. No campuswide warning about the first shootings was sent until two hours later. The other shootings, in Norris Hall, occurred starting at 9:45 a.m.
The jury was instructed that if it found the university employees should have reasonably foreseen that there might be more shootings after the first ones but failed to warn students, the state should be found negligent.
Among other things, the Attorney General’s Office argued that school officials had no special relationship with the students imposing a duty on them to warn of potential harm from a third party.
And in any case, the attorney general argued, there was no foreseeable harm to the students and the evidence failed to establish that any alleged breach of duty led to the additional slayings.
But Robert T. Hall, a lawyer representing the two families, argued before the justices in September that with one dead and one wounded student on campus and a gunman still on the loose, there was evidence of imminent probability of harm.
Thursday’s opinion, written by Justice Cleo E. Powell, held that “as a general rule, a person does not have a duty to warn or protect another from the criminal acts of a third person.”
That is particularly the case, said the justices, when the third party commits assaults that can not be reasonably foreseen. There are exceptions, but narrow ones, they said.
“In only rare circumstances has this court determined that the duty to protect against harm from third-party criminal acts exists,” said the ruling.
The justices noted that the commonwealth did not know who the shooter was while law enforcement was in the early stages of its investigation of the crime.
“However, based on representations from three different police departments, Virginia Tech officials believed the shooting was a domestic incident and that the shooter may have been the boyfriend of one of the victims,” says the ruling.
“Most importantly, based on the information available at the time, the defendants believed that the shooter had fled the area and posed no danger to others,” Powell wrote.
She concluded that “it cannot be said that it was known or reasonably foreseeable that students in Norris Hall would fall victim to criminal harm.” Thus, as a matter of law, the commonwealth did not have a duty to protect students against third-party criminal acts.
Hincker said the court reversed an action that was based on an incorrect interpretation of Virginia law. “These clearly were important legal principles that had to be and were clarified,” he said.