When it rains, it runs at the University of Virginia.

So says a newly graduated law student who has filed a $2.2 million complaint in federal court, alleging that clothes worn by graduate students during the university's rain-drenched commencement ceremonies last month were damaged when purple and green dye ran from their colored gowns.

A lawyer for the defendants, the Roanoke-based Oak Hall Cap and Gown Co. and an Ohio subsidiary, C.E. Ward Inc., yesterday scoffed at the claim as "a bit grandiose" and "meritless."

Not so, said attorney D. Jeffrey Rengel, who prepared the complaint on behalf of recent graduate Louis J. Licata. Rengel maintained that serious issues of product liability are involved. "You can't have your picture taken at graduation when you look like a zebra," Rengel said.

University spokesman William Fishbeck said it was President Frank Hereford who elected to hold the May 22 ceremony outside. "It's known locally as 'that gutsy decision,' " Fishbeck said. He said Hereford stepped out into a light mist at about 8:30 a.m. and said, "We'll go with The Lawn," referring to the site of the school's traditional commencement procession.

"Parents and students said, 'Hooray,' " said Fishbeck, adding that the alternative, the field house, would have been muggy, un-air-conditioned and untraditional.

"You don't have to attend commencement, you don't have to march in the procession and you don't have to stand in the rain," Fishbeck said. Fishbeck said he "got drenched."

Defense lawyer William Poff, who said Oak Hall has furnished caps and gowns for Virginia's commencement "from time out of mind," vowed to fight the allegations vigorously. "The case is no problem," he said. "It's publicity that's the problem."

Undergraduates, whose black "souvenir" gowns were less expensive and nonreturnable, apparently were not affected.