Virginia High Court Tosses Verdict in Virginia Tech Case

Virginia Tech University couldn’t have foreseen the subsequent rampage of a lone gunman after two students were found shot to death in a dorm room, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled, reversing a jury’s wrongful death verdict against the state.

The state university and three police departments at first reasonably thought the students’ deaths stemmed from a personal conflict and had no cause to believe they’d be the first fatalities in a massacre culminating in the murder of 30 more people in Norris Hall, a classroom building, the high court ruled today. Gunman Seung-Hui Cho also killed himself.

Based on the limited information available to the state before the shootings in the classroom facility, “it cannot be said that it was known or reasonably foreseeable that students in Norris Hall would fall victim to criminal harm,” Justice Cleo Powell wrote. “Thus as a matter of law, the Commonwealth did not have a duty to protect students against third party criminal acts.”

The wrongful death suit, claiming that the university was negligent in failing to issue proper warnings of a gunman on the loose, was filed by the families of two of Cho’s victims, Erin Peterson, 18, and Julia Pryde, 23, who were killed in Norris Hall.

The shootings there occurred more than two hours after police found the two gunshot victims of Cho in the dormitory.

Jury Award

A jury awarded each family $4 million, later reduced to $100,000 a family because of statutory caps.

The families of the other 30 people killed and 16 people injured in the shootings shared in an $11 million settlement with the state that included agreements not to sue, according to Peter Grenier, a Washington attorney who helped negotiate the payment package.

“It’s extremely unfortunate,” Grenier said of today’s ruling. “But recognize that it’s an uphill battle. In Virginia, it’s very difficult to bring an action against someone based on the foreseeability of a criminal act by a third party.”

Robert Hall, an attorney for the Peterson and Pryde families, was in a mediation and unavailable for comment, according to the person answering the phone in his Reston, Virginia, office.

Charles Steger, president of Virginia Tech, thanked Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli for his diligence in defending the case, according to a statement released by the university.

‘Personally Engaged’

“Attorney General Cuccinelli was personally engaged, for which I will be forever grateful,” Steger, who has announced he will step down as president, said in the statement.

Brian Gottstein, a spokesman for Cuccinelli, said in an e-mailed statement that the 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.”

The case is Commonwealth of Virginia v. Peterson, 121717, Virginia Supreme Court (Richmond).

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