Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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Virginia State News

April 5, 2013

State appeals Tech negligence verdict in shootings

BLUEFIELD — The state has asked the Virginia Supreme Court to reverse a jury’s findings of negligence in the death of two students who were slain in the April 2007 massacre on the Virginia Tech campus.

The attorney general’s office is asking justices to enter a judgment for the state or set aside the March 2012 verdict that concluded students Julia Pryde and Erin Peterson could have survived the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history if Tech’s Blacksburg campus was warned earlier of a gunman on campus.

Student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 students and faculty and himself on April 16, 2007. Tech officials delayed warning the full campus for hours after the first shootings, believing the gunman had targeted his victims and was not a threat to the wider campus.

In a brief filed Thursday, attorneys for the state wrote that the trial judge erred on several counts, including the conclusion that Tech had a “duty to warn of third party criminal act” and for instructing jurors that Tech should have “reasonably foreseen” that further killings would occur after the first shootings.

“Something the scope of which had never occurred previously on a college campus in Virginia or elsewhere played out that day, and dozens of people, including Peterson and Pryde, lost their lives,” the state wrote in its filing with the court. “However, the unprecedented tragedy should not and does not alter the tort law of the Commonwealth regarding concepts of duty, proof and causation.”

The trial in Montgomery County Circuit Court was brought by the families of Pryde and Peterson. Besides finding the state negligent, jurors awarded each family $4 million. The trial judge later reduced the damages to the state cap of $100,000 for each.

While the state was the lone defendant in the trial, attorneys for the Prydes and the Petersons are continuing their efforts to put Tech President Charles Steger on trial for his actions that day. He was excluded from the trial, as were other Tech officials.

Steger delayed a campus-wide alert of the first two shootings by Cho at a dormitory, based on the advice of police investigators at the scene. They concluded the first shootings had all the signs of a domestic dispute and advised Steger that the gunman, while at large, did not pose a continuing threat to the larger campus.

Attorney Robert T. Hall, representing the families of the two slain students, said Steger alerted the governor’s office and the Board of Visitors, but decided against a campus-wide alert that two students had been shot — one killed, the other mortally wounded.

“Had he elected to warn the campus, not alert his distant corporate employers, we wouldn’t be in this litigation,” Hall wrote in an email Friday.

The court has not scheduled arguments in the appeal.

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