The Virginia Supreme Court has overturned a pair of wrongful death lawsuits originally filed in Fairfax County Circuit Court on behalf of a Centreville family whose daughter was killed during the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre.
Celeste and Grafton Peterson, along with Harry and Karen Pryde of New Jersey, filed the original lawsuits in 2009. After four years of going through the lower courts, both sides filed formal notices of appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court. Last Thursday, the Commonwealth’s highest court ruled that the school was not negligent and overturned the lower court’s ruling that it had been.
The Peterson’s daughter, Erin — a 2006 graduate of Westfield High School — was one of the 32 people killed by fellow Westfield graduate Seung-Hui Cho in the rampage.
In a joint statement that accompanied the initial suits, the families wrote: “It appears university officials delayed warning students and faculty that a gunman who had killed two students was at large and might still be on campus in order to manage ‘the message in the way least harmful to the university’s image.’”
Robert Hall, a Reston attorney who represents the Petersons, said university administrators knew at 7:15 a.m. on the day of the massacre that two students had been shot — one fatally — in West Ambler Johnston Hall, but a warning did not go out until more than two hours later, at 9:26 a.m.
The case was originally heard in March, 2011 in Christiansburg, where a jury sided with the plaintiffs and found the school negligent. The jury awarded $4 million each to the Peterson and Pryde families, but the Commonwealth immediately filed a motion to have those awards reduced.
As a wrongful death claim, the original $10 million lawsuits initially were eligible to be heard by a jury which could recommend damages. But under Virginia law, with the Commonwealth as the only defendant left in the case, the suit became subject to tort law restrictions. Tort law deals with situations where a person’s behavior allegedly has caused someone else to suffer loss or harm. Under Virginia law, tort law claims are individually capped at $100,000.
On Oct. 31, the case went before the Virginia Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously that “as a matter of law, the Commonwealth did not have a duty to protect students against third party criminal acts” and “there was no duty for the Commonwealth to warn students about the potential for criminal acts by third parties. Therefore, we will reverse the judgment of the circuit court.”
For the last four years, both Virginia Tech and the Commonwealth maintained that the university was not negligent, and that Cho’s actions were solely to blame for the worst campus massacre in U.S. history.
“The Virginia Supreme Court has found what we have said all along to be true,” said Brian Gottstein, a spokesman for Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. “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 Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling, however, clashes with a previous federal ruling on the case.
On Aug. 30, 2012, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued an order ruling that, during its handling of the shooting, Virginia Tech committed two violations of the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, better known as the Clery Act, fining the university $27,500 for one violation and remanding a portion of the case for determination of another fine for a second violation.
The federal Clery Act requires colleges and universities to issue timely warnings to their campus communities when a crime has occurred that is considered to be a threat. Duncan went on to rule that the warning issued by Virginia Tech’s University Relations Office was not timely because Virginia Tech did not issue a warning until more than two hours after it learned of the first two shootings.
Hall, who represents the Petersons, said he plans to file a petition for a re-hearing with the Virginia Supreme Court.