Thursday, January 14, 2010


The ruling by Franklin County Circuit Court Judge William Alexander II that major parts of the law suit against Virginia Tech President Charles Steger and former executive Vice President James Hyatt can go forward, may mean that—at last—the truth will probably come out and people will be held responsible what they did and did not do. The judge’s ruling also clears the way for the suit to go ahead against three Cook Counseling Center employees, former director Robert Miller and staff members Sherry Lynch-Conrad and Cahtye Betzel.

The law suit was filed by the parents of slain students Julia Pryde and Erin Peterson. The judge, in making his ruling, indicated that the plaintiffs presented enough evidence of gross negligence that principle of sovereign immunity is overruled and the law suit can go ahead--a trial is warranted.

Sovereign immunity, a doctrine going back to English common law, states that the sovereign (in Virginia’s case, the state and state institutions) cannot be suited unless there is evidence of gross negligence. The judge found that evidence. The cases against Virginia Tech’s Cook Counseling Center and some staff members and all other school defendants were dismissed on grounds of sovereign immunity.

The ruling does not mean there will be a trial. Lawyers for the defendants are bound to file appeals. But it is hard to imagine an Appeals Court overturning Judge Alexander’s ruling. A trial is vitally important to discovering the truth about what happened that horrific day, learning from the mistakes that were obviously made, and finally, holding people accountable for their actions and inactions. This last point is critical. Until people are held accountable—particularly where there is negligence—there is absolutely no incentive to make sure our schools are safe.

Putting people under oath is the only way to get at the truth—but even that is no guarantee. If there is a trial, there are many other problems that will have to be dealt with. I am sure many Virginia Tech employees will have selective memories about what happened that day. “I don’t remember” is a phrase heard too often in trials to cover-up evidence of a crime or gross negligence. There is also the well known principle of the “test-a-lie.” It is sad, but I know cases where lawyers have told witnesses to lie in order to make the evidence fit the lawyer’s case. I doubt if that will happen, but be prepared.

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