The families of two women killed during a 2007 shooting rampage on the Virginia Tech campus received a jury award of $4 million each in their claims against the university for negligence. The jury found that the university negligently delayed warnings about Seung-Hui Cho, who had shot and killed two people in a campus dormitory two-and-a-half hours before embarking on the deadliest shooting spree in modern American history. Cho ultimately killed thirty-two people before turning a gun on himself. The university, backed by the Commonwealth of Virginia, is now asserting a state law that caps damage awards against the state at $100,000, as the families fight back.
Cho was a 23 year-old undergraduate student at Virginia Tech with a history of mental illness and “abnormal behavior.” His shooting spree began at about 7:15 a.m. on April 16, 2007, when he killed two students on the fourth floor of a high-rise dormitory. Cho then reportedly spent approximately two-and-a-half hours re-arming himself and mailing a package a photographs and documents to NBC News. At about 9:45 a.m., he went to a classroom building across the campus where he shot dozens of people, killing thirty, over the course of nine minutes. Cho then committed suicide when police breached the building.
Virginia Tech soon faced accusations that it negligently failed to warn students and staff after the first two murders, which allowed Cho’s rampage to proceed almost unimpeded. Police initially thought the first two deaths resulted from a “romantic dispute.” The university sent an e-mail to students and staff advising them to be cautious more than two hours later, roughly twenty minutes before Cho’s second attack began. Multiple negligence and wrongful death lawsuits followed.
The families of twenty-four of Cho’s victims, as well as eighteen people injured by the shootings, settled with the state in 2008 for $11 million. Several families refused to settle, and two of them recently went to trial.
In March 2012, a trial took place in a courtroom in Christiansburg, Virginia for the families of two victims, Erin Peterson and Julia Pryde. The university repeated many of its defenses, maintaining that officials believed Cho had fled the campus after the first two shootings, and that they did not connect the two series of shootings until later. The jury, after deliberating for just over three hours, returned a verdict finding that Virginia Tech officials were negligent in delaying warnings about the first two shootings, and that this delay directly contributed to the victims’ deaths. It awarded $4 million to each family .
The state immediately moved to cap the damages at $100,000 per family, based on a Virginia law limiting damages in claims against the state. Jurors were not made aware of this cap before their deliberations. The families are now seeking to recover $2 million each from Virginia’s risk management plan as a way around the damage cap. Their motion is still pending.
The Washington, DC injury lawyers at Lebowitz & Mzhen help people injured due to the negligence of others to assert their rights and recover their just compensation. Contact us today online or at (800) 654-1949 to schedule a free and confidential consultation.
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Photo credit: ‘Virginia Tech massacre candlelight vigil Burruss’ by alka3en of flickr [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons