Judge: Virginia Tech victims' families may pursue lawsuit

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 12, 2010; 7:05 PM

A Virginia judge ruled that the families of two victims of the April 2007 Virginia Tech massacre may pursue a lawsuit against two top university officials and employees of a counseling center.

The families of Erin Peterson and Julia Pryde allege that the school failed to take enough action to warn and protect students the morning of April 16, 2007, when mentally ill student Seung Hui Cho shot and killed 32 students and faculty members before killing himself.

Judge William Alexander, who sits in Montgomery County Circuit Court in Christiansburg, Va., ruled that the case may proceed against university President Charles Steger and former executive vice president James Hyatt. The officials had argued that they were protected by sovereign immunity, which shields government employees who are doing their jobs, but allows lawsuits to be brought in cases where there are claims of gross negligence.

Alexander also ruled that the case may proceed against three employees of the university's Cook Counseling Center, where Cho was seen.

Alexander dismissed complaints against other university employees as well as the New River Valley Community Services Board, the government mental health agency that serves Blacksburg.

The Peterson and Pryde families, each seeking millions in damages, were the only two that did not agree to an $11 million settlement with the state in June 2008. Peterson attended Westfield High School in Chantilly. Pryde lived in Middletown, N.J.

Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, said the ruling sets the case up for discovery, possible settlement negotiations and possibly a trial. "One reason most of the families settled was uncertainty about whether they could clear the threshold issue of sovereign immunity," Tobias said. The judge "rejected the defense motion to end the case now."

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