By Anita Kumar and Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 11, 2008
RICHMOND, April 10 -- Most families of the Virginia Tech massacre victims have agreed in principle to accept an $11 million settlement in exchange for agreeing not to sue the state.
The families' decision to agree to a taxpayer-financed package of compensation, health benefits and other assistance came less than a week before the one-year anniversary of the shooting by senior Seung Hui Cho, who killed 32 students and teachers and then himself. State officials and the families had hoped to reach an agreement soon on a settlement to help put the case behind them and avoid a long, emotional court case.
But the state still could be vulnerable to lawsuits, lawyers and families said. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) said Thursday that "a substantial majority" of the families of the dead and 27 wounded agreed to the terms of the settlement. Others are undecided and considering their options.
Disclosure of the settlement offer was the latest development in a year-long attempt to compensate the families and relatives of the worst massacre on a college campus in U.S. history. In the fall, the families of the dead and wounded received one-time payments from the separate Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund created from private donations that poured in after the shooting.
"It will hopefully bring some closure to those who lost a loved one and those injured, especially at this time of year where memories of what happened might be more prevalent for them," said Derek O'Dell, 20, of Roanoke, who was wounded in the attack April 16 and agreed to the settlement.
Kaine and the Washington law firm of Bode and Grenier, which said it represented 21 families, declined to release details of the settlement, which still awaits families' signatures. But several people involved in the negotiations confirmed that the families of those killed would receive $100,000 and the wounded students and teachers would receive as much as $100,000, depending on the severity of their injuries.
"The victims and victims' families, their counsel, Virginia Tech and officials of the commonwealth have worked with serious commitment and diligence toward a reasonable resolution and response to the legitimate needs, interests and concerns arising out of that horrific event," Kaine said.
Forty families filed a notice of claims against the state after the massacre; others have until Wednesday to consider filing. The state is self-insured, which means any settlement will be paid for with taxpayer money. Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R), whose office helped negotiate the settlement, declined to comment.
"I'm glad that they've made a lot of progress resolving these cases," said Sen. John S. Edwards (D-Roanoke), whose district includes the Blacksburg campus and who was briefed on the negotiations this week. "These settlements in no way take away the pain and suffering of the families, but it's a first step toward healing."
Under the settlement, Virginia would create several funds to cover such expenses as medical care and contributions to charities. Families would have an opportunity to meet with Kaine and officials from the university and the Virginia State Police to receive an update on the investigation into the rampage. The state would also pay attorneys' fees.
"The settlement will also result in the release of previously undisclosed facts and information turned up by our firm's investigation that will enable the public to better understand the events which caused this senseless tragedy and why this settlement with Virginia has been reached," lawyers Peter Grenier and Douglas Fierberg of Bode and Grenier said in a statement.
O'Dell's father, Roger, estimated that "two to six" families of those involved did not agree to the settlement. But other lawyers and families said Thursday that they need to see the details first.
"Until we see the details, we withhold statement," said Joseph Samaha of Fairfax County, whose daughter Reema was killed.
A number of the families did not retain lawyers or plan to pursue litigation against the state.
"The priority for me was not to sue, but to find out what went wrong," said Andy Goddard of Richmond, whose son, Colin, was shot four times and survived. "The most important thing was determining exactly what went wrong, not necessarily who -- I'm not interested in seeing a line of heads on spikes.
"We don't need to add any more victims to this tragedy. But we need to find out exactly what went wrong, learn from it, so that it never happens again."
Goddard said he knew nothing about the settlement and is waiting for his copy of the draft. "As far as I'm concerned, until each of us sign off on it, the settlement is still open," he said. "Negotiations are still underway."
Contracts have not been completed. But most families have said they intend to sign the documents, the governor's office said. Other families said they are undecided.
Lori Haas of Richmond, whose daughter Emily made an emergency call on the day of the attack, said she could not comment on the settlement because it is confidential. Haas was not represented by a lawyer and described the settlement as a draft agreement in principle. "Nothing has been signed," she said.
Mildred Granata of Toledo, whose son Kevin was killed, said his widow hasn't reached a decision.
"When you have a child that is shot down, even when that child is a grown man, it is something you never get over," Mildred Granata wrote in a claim filed last week. "We will never again have our complete family together. . . . If we sound bitter, we are. The Virginia Tech administration had plenty of time to cancel classes and close its doors that day after the first shooting. But they did not."
Del. David A. Nutter (R-Montgomery), who represents the Blacksburg area, said many residents have complained to him that the state would be using taxpayer money to pay victims for the shooting. But he said he supports the settlement, which will probably keep the state's costs down and provide closure.
"This is not the kind of thing you want to go on and on," he said.
Staff writers Tim Craig and Tamara Jones and researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report. Kumar and Craig reported from Richmond.