• July 25, 2014

Virginia Tech Was Not Negligent, State Supreme Court Rules

The case has both heightened and challenged expectations about campus safety

Virginia Tech Was Not Negligent, State Supreme Court Rules 1

Rebecca Barnett, The Roanoke Times, AP Images

The ruling overturns a wrongful-death verdict in a lawsuit brought by the families of two of the students who were slain in the 2007 shooting rampage at Virginia Tech. Above, people gathered at a campus memorial last spring on the anniversary of the shootings.

After two students were shot in a residence hall at Virginia Tech on the morning of April 16, 2007, officials there could not reasonably have foreseen a second set of shootings, and so did not have a duty to warn the campus, the state's Supreme Court ruled on Thursday, reversing a jury's wrongful-death verdict.

"Based on the information available at that time," wrote Justice Cleo E. Powell in the court's unanimous opinion, "the defendants believed that the shooter had fled the area and posed no danger to others."

In fact, after fatally wounding two victims, the gunman, a student, went into an academic building and killed 30 more people, then himself.

Debate has continued for more than six years over whether Virginia Tech protected the campus as best it could that fateful day. Apart from the legal case, the university has faced investigations by state and federal agencies and an enduring trial in the court of public opinion.

People expect colleges to keep students safe, and this case has both heightened and challenged those expectations. By one argument, Virginia Tech could have done more to limit the loss of life, and institutions everywhere should be more vigilant and responsive. By another, campus officials cannot always prevent a tragedy.

The case decided on Thursday stemmed from a civil lawsuit by the parents of Erin N. Peterson and Julia K. Pryde, two students who were each killed in a classroom on April 16. The shootings in Norris Hall began about two hours after the earlier incident—around the same time the university issued a warning.

The Petersons and Prydes alleged gross negligence. If Virginia Tech officials had warned the campus sooner, the parents argued, the young women would have taken precautions, altering their schedules. After a judge removed several defendants, including individual administrators and the university, from the lawsuit, the case proceeded with the Commonwealth of Virginia as the sole defendant.

A jury last year found for the families, awarding $4-million to each, an amount that was reduced to $100,000, in accordance with a state cap. "The verdict represents accountability," Bob Hall, a lawyer for the families, said at the time.

The state appealed, and Virginia's Supreme Court decided differently. Campus officials could not be found negligent, the court reasoned, if they could not have anticipated the gunman's second burst of violence.

"It cannot be said that it was known or reasonably foreseeable that students in Norris Hall would fall victim to criminal harm," wrote Justice Powell. "Thus, as a matter of law, the commonwealth did not have a duty to protect students."

University Vindicated

Having made similar arguments, university and state officials were satisfied with the ruling on Thursday.

"The Virginia Supreme Court has found what we have said all along to be true," Brian J. Gottstein, a spokesman for the state attorney general's office, said in a written statement. "The commonwealth and its officials at Virginia Tech were not negligent on April 16, 2007."

Representatives of the university also emphasized their sympathy for families forever affected by that day. "There is no joy," Lawrence G. Hincker, a Virginia Tech spokesman, said in an interview. "It doesn't make anybody feel better," he said of the decision.

Charles W. Steger, the university's long-serving president who announced his retirement in May, thanked state officials for their attention "throughout the lengthy fallout from this wrenching tragedy."

"Their belief in the university's employees is gratifying and very much appreciated," he said in a written statement.

Representatives of the victims' families took a different view. Over time, some have criticized campus officials' poor judgment—say, in contacting the governor to report one student dead, another injured, and a gunman on the loose before warning the campus.

"We're all very disappointed," said L. Steven Emmert, a lawyer for the Peterson and Pryde families. "We had hoped for a different outcome."

Mr. Emmert did not know on Thursday whether the families would ask the court to reconsider the case, as state law allows. They had also sought to reinstate Mr. Steger as a defendant, but the court affirmed his dismissal from the lawsuit.

The Petersons and Prydes were the only two families who lost relatives in the second shootings and did not agree to an $11-million settlement with the university and state in 2008. Each family that accepted that settlement was granted $100,000; additional compensation for medical and mental-health expenses; meetings with state-government and university officials; and joint access to a $3.7-million "public purpose" fund for campus-safety projects, memorial activities, and alleviation of severe personal hardships related to the killings.

Standards Unaffected

The tragedy at Virginia Tech has brought about significant changes in emergency preparedness and crisis response throughout higher education, and Thursday's ruling will not alter that, said S. Daniel Carter, director of the 32 National Campus Safety Initiative at the VTV Family Outreach Foundation, an advocacy group representing survivors and victims.

"The decision of the Virginia Supreme Court that there is not civil liability in this case should not take away from all the lessons that have been learned," he said.

When a campus police officer was shot at Virginia Tech in 2011, he pointed out, the university issued an alert in less than 10 minutes.

On campuses across the country, threat assessment and emergency notification are much more robust than they used to be, said Mr. Carter. And new federal law governs emergency notification, among other safety measures, he noted.

"The standards in place now are unaffected by this ruling," Mr. Carter said. "The world has already changed."

Meanwhile, judgment of Virginia Tech by the federal agency responsible for enforcing a campus-crime-reporting law is still pending. The U.S. Department of Education initially found the university in violation of the law, for not sending an earlier warning after the first shooting. An administrative judge overturned that finding, and then the education secretary himself largely reinstated it. If after further consideration the decision stands, the university may appeal it in federal court.

Virginia Tech will probably have a new president by then, and the state a new attorney general. Of the two dozen students who were injured in the shootings, Mr. Hincker said, all have since graduated from the university.

But a tragedy lives with a campus for a long time. When Virginia Tech redesigned its website over the summer, it left off—inadvertently, Mr. Hincker said—a memorial ribbon. Its absence quickly came to the university's attention. And now the ribbon is back, in the upper right-hand corner of the home page, beside the words "We remember."

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