The Virginia Supreme Court overturned a jury verdict in a wrongful-death suit brought by the parents of two students who were killed in the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, delivering fresh pain to the victims’ families and a sense of relief to school and state officials.
In a unanimous decision released Thursday, the justices wrote that “there was no duty for the commonwealth to warn students about the potential for criminal acts” by student-gunman Seung Hui Cho after he shot two students in a dormitory. Nearly 2 ½ hours later, Cho chained the doors at Norris Hall and shot at least 47 people in 11 minutes before killing himself.
Jurors in Montgomery County Circuit Court ruled last year that the state was negligent in the deaths of Julia Pryde and Erin Peterson, two of the 32 people killed by Cho on the Blacksburg campus. The jury panel awarded the parents of Pryde and Peterson $4 million each, although the court later reduced the amount to $100,000 per family.
Harry Pryde, whose daughter Julia was killed in her advanced hydrology class on the second floor of Norris Hall, said the families were “deeply saddened that the court was so dismissive of assigning responsibility and was so protective of the commonwealth.”
The lawsuit was about accountability, not money, Pryde said in a telephone interview, “and we still take a good measure of satisfaction that the jury listened to all of the evidence and decided as it did. We don’t feel at all that the Supreme Court can take that away from us.”
Virginia Tech and the state maintained all along that campus officials and police had acted appropriately, given what they knew at the time.
While expressing sympathy for the victims of the massacre, “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,” said Brian Gottstein, a spokesman for Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, in a written statement. “Cho was the lone person responsible for this tragedy.”
After Cho’s rampage — one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history — most of the victims’ families accepted a settlement that prohibited them from suing the university or the state. The Petersons and Prydes refused, instead pursuing a lawsuit because, they said, they wanted to get to truths they suspected officials were withholding.
Several people, including Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger, were originally named as defendants in the lawsuit. But by the time the case went to trial, all of the individual defendants had been dismissed, leaving the state as the lone defendant.
The question at the heart of the lawsuit was one the families had been asking since 2007: Why hadn’t Virginia Tech officials informed the campus community that a gunman might be on the loose after the double murder in the dorm?
The Prydes and Petersons maintained that a proper warning would have helped their daughters avoid Cho’s bullets.
The jury agreed, but the state appealed, arguing that it was not required, by law, “to warn of third party criminal acts.”
In the state Supreme Court’s 15-page decision, the justices wrote that the facts weren’t strong enough to “conclude that the duty to protect students against third party criminal acts arose as a matter of law.”
Still, the mass shooting led universities everywhere to rethink their emergency planning. Now, it is standard for students, faculty and staff to be alerted rapidly through text messages, e-mail and other communications when threats emerge — as happened in December 2011 when a Virginia Tech police officer was shot and killed on campus.
Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, said that under Virginia tort law, “there usually isn’t much of a duty to protect someone from third-party criminal acts,” unless the criminal acts are foreseeable.
Could it be reasonably foreseen that Cho’s rampage would continue on campus, hours after the first shooting? The seven state Supreme Court justices who heard the appeal were unanimous in their opinion: It could not, given “the limited information available . . . prior to the shootings in Norris.”
An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is possible, Tobias said, but he called it “extremely unlikely that the court would hear this. . . . I don’t know that there are any avenues left for the plaintiffs in the civil justice system.”
The Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling contrasted with the conclusion of the federal government about Virginia Tech’s response. In August 2012, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan determined that the university should be fined $27,500 for a violation of a federal law known as the Clery Act. That law requires universities to issue timely warnings of threats to students and staff.
“It is alarming that [Virginia Tech] argues that it had no duty to warn the campus community after the Police Department discovered the bodies of two students shot in a dormitory, and did not know the identity or location of the shooter,” Duncan wrote in his decision. “Indeed, if there were ever a time when a warning was required under the Clery Act, this would be it.”
The university disputes Duncan’s conclusion and has not paid the fine. A Virginia Tech spokesman said the university could pursue a court challenge at some point.
Nick Anderson contributed to this story.