Jury finds VA TECH negligent in 2007 shootings
March 18, 2012By Cavalier Dave Forrester of Hugh M Cummings High School
Jury finds Va. Tech negligent in 2007 shootings
Families of two victims filed wrongful death suit
CHRISTIANSBURG, Va. — The parents of two Virginia Tech students killed in a 2007 campus massacre worked for years to prove university officials were negligent for waiting to warn students of a gunman on campus, and a jury agreed with themWednesday.
After the verdict, the parents said their persistence is what their daughters would have wanted. They were the only eligible families to reject their share of an $11 million dollar settlement in 2008, instead taking the state to court in a wrongful death lawsuit. The move all but guaranteed less money and more of a legal struggle, but the families said that getting answers mattered the most.
“When you know that something is right, you’re not deterred from your course,” said Celeste Peterson, whose daughter Erin died in the mass shooting that was the deadliest in modern U.S. history. “We wanted the truth from the very beginning and we got it. All I know is today we got what we wanted.”
The civil lawsuit that Peterson and her husband filed along with the parents of Julia Pryde was the last pending litigation over the mass shootings. The state is expected to appeal the verdict, as it did a separate fine handed down by federal education officials. No criminal charges were brought in the shootings. It’s not clear if any more civil lawsuits will be filed.
It took jurors 3 1/2 hours Wednesday to find that university officials botched their response to the massacre on April 16, 2007, that left 33 people, including the gunman, dead. The jury determined that the Prydes and Petersons each deserved $4 million, but the award is likely to be sharply reduced. State law requires it to be capped at $100,000.
Still, the amount of the award mattered little to the two families.
“We were looking for truth for a long time,” Harry Pryde said outside the courthouse that’s less than 10 miles from Tech’s Blacksburg campus. “We persevered and we got some truth today.”
The parents’ lawsuit argued that lives could have been spared if school officials had moved more quickly to alert the campus after the first two victims were shot in a dorm. The massacre ended later in the morning with the deaths 31 more people, including the gunman, at a classroom building.
The state was the lone defendant in the case and argued that the university did all that it could with the information available at the time. President Charles W. Steger and other university officials have said they initially believed the first two shootings were isolated instances of domestic violence, based on what police investigators told them.
“The university’s contention has been all along, to quote president Steger ‘We did everything we could do,’” said Robert T. Hall, an attorney for the parents.“Obviously, the jury didn’t buy that.”
The verdict was met by sobs from Celeste Peterson, while her husband, Grafton, appeared to quietly weep at the plaintiff’s table. They later embraced each other. The Prydes were stoic, as they were most of the eightday trial.
Circuit Judge William Alexander said it was the hardest case he had been a part of.
“My heart goes out to all of you,” he said to the families of victims.
Virginia Tech spokesman Mark Owczarski said after the verdict that the school would review the case with the attorney general before deciding on any further options.
“We are disappointed with today’s decision and stand by our long-held position that the administration and law enforcement at Virginia Tech did their absolute best with the information available on April 16, 2007,” Owczarski said in a statement.
One of the state’s attorneys, Peter R. Messitt, said before the verdict that Tech officials could not be expected to anticipate the killing spree, calling the slaughter unprecedented “in the history of higher education” and “one of the most horrible days in America.”
“What happened at Norris Hall was not reasonably foreseeable,” he told jurors during closing arguments.
Outside of court, Hall disagreed: “It’s so clear that a warning should have been given. The amount of the verdict speaks to that end.”
During the trial, the attorneys for the Prydes and Petersons portrayed campus police as leaping to the conclusion that the first two victims were shot by a jealous boyfriend, and that the gunman was not a threat to others.
The Associated Press
Grafton Peterson, father of shooting victim Erin Peterson, reacts Wednesday as a seven-person jury in Montgomery County Circuit Court finds that Virginia Tech was negligent in the death of his daughter in Christiansburg, Va.