On Tuesday, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that it will not rehear the case of 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.
The lawsuits alleged that the university — and by proxy the Commonwealth — mishandled the campus shooting massacre, which is considered the worst in American history.
Celeste and Grafton Peterson, along with Harry and Karen Pryde of New Jersey, filed the original lawsuits in 2009.
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.
After four years of going through the lower courts, both sides filed formal notices of appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court. 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 represented 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.
In October, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the school was not negligent and overturned the lower court’s earlier ruling that it had been. The families immediately petitioned the Supreme Court to consider rehearing the case, but on Tuesday, the court replied that it would not.
“Sadly, this is the end of the case within the state court system,” said Hall. “We gave the Court a chance to correct their earlier error and they failed to do so, so that’s it. There will not be an appeal to the U.S Supreme Court.”
But Hall said there is still one court to which he and the Petersons will appeal.
“There’s only one court left,” he said. “That is the court of public opinion.”
According to Hall, a website detailing his team’s version of how the massacre was mishandled will go live next week. It will include links to thousands of documents and trial record transcripts that Hall said will paint quite a different picture than that of the official Supreme Court ruling, which he says in his opinion was based on “a fiction floated by the university to deflect attention away from its failure to warn the campus.”
Officials from both the Commonwealth and Virginia Tech said they were pleased with the court’s final decision.
“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.” In a statement, Virginia Tech spokesman Larry Hincker said that university officials were also pleased with the Court’s ruling.
“Our website, www.in-memoriam-erin-and-julie.com, will let the public decide for themselves,” Hall said.