Friday, December 2, 2011

Wrongful death suit against Va. Tech settled

The state will pay more than $123,000 to the family of a student who killed himself in 2007.

By Tonia Moxley (Roanoke Times)


Clarification (Nov. 29, 2011: 2:05 p.m.): References to Yang Xin, the victim of a violent killing at Virginia Tech in 2009, were convoluted in previous versions of this story. The story has been updated. | Our corrections policy

The state has agreed to pay $250,000 and create a $100,000 scholarship fund to settle a $43million wrongful death lawsuit brought against Virginia Tech by the family of a student who committed suicide, according to a court order.

The state will pay $250,000, to include up to $126,666 in legal fees to the plaintiff's attorney. The family is to receive at least $123,334.

Additionally, Tech will establish a $100,000 scholarship in Daniel Sun Kim's name, place a memorial plaque somewhere on campus and enact a policy of considering immediate notification of the parents or guardians of any student who is thought to be suicidal.

The family brought the civil suit in Fairfax County Circuit Court in 2009 to "learn why Tech didn't follow its protocols" in responding to a warning that Kim was suicidal, plaintiff's attorney Gary Mims wrote in a statement.

Now, the Kim family "can begin their journey to healing, and Tech can address future concerns, learn from this lesson and hopefully share this experience with other colleges and universities."

"Student suicide under any circumstances is tearful and heartbreaking," university spokesman Larry Hincker wrote in a statement.

While the university admits no wrongdoing, officials are "satisfied with the settlement between Daniel Kim's parents and the commonwealth," Hincker wrote. "We hope that they [the Kim family] see this in their best interests, too."

In the lawsuit, Elizabeth and William Kim of Reston alleged Tech officials were negligent in responding to an explicit warning that their son, Daniel, then a 21-year-old senior, had threatened to kill himself in messages to online acquaintances.

Kim was said to have become distraught over thoughts that he looked like Seung-Hui Cho, a Tech student who killed 32 students and faculty and wounded more than a dozen others in the April 16, 2007, campus shootings.

Shaun Pribush, an online acquaintance of Daniel Kim, sent an email to the university warning that Kim had threatened to kill himself and had acquired a gun.

According to deposition transcripts provided to The Roanoke Times by Mims, university officials and Tech and Blacksburg police searched for and found the Daniel Kim referenced in the email from among about a dozen similarly named students.

A Blacksburg police officer who conducted a wellness check on Daniel Sun Kim testified that the student denied knowing Shaun Pribush and denied being suicidal. Neither his appearance nor manner suggested he was in any distress, the officer testified.

Despite recommendations by Vicki Arbuckle, assistant director of psychiatry services at Tech's counseling center, and counseling center director Chris Flynn that Kim be invited in for a meeting to discuss the situation, his case was officially closed on Nov.12, 2007.

No one other than the Blacksburg officer ever contacted the troubled student, according to Mims.

Arbuckle testified that the office of the dean of students would have been responsible for inviting Kim to discuss his situation. But, she emphasized, Kim could not be compelled to speak with officials, or to see a counselor.

According to Mims, Kim's parents were not notified about Pribush's email, or the university's investigation of their son's case.

On Dec. 9, 2007, Kim was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in a car in a Christiansburg parking lot.

The Kim case is one of three high-profile civil cases brought against Tech since the April 16th shootings, all alleging that university officials did too little to protect students who died violent deaths.

In a written ruling dated Nov. 1, Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Bobby Turk dismissed a lawsuit brought against Tech officials by the estate of Yang Xin, a Tech graduate student and Chinese national who was beheaded in 2009 in an on-campus attack. Another student, Haiyang Zhu, was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole for the killing.

Xin's estate alleged that Tech officials did too little to protect her from Zhu, who had been assigned by the Tech Association of Chinese Students and Scholars to help Xin settle in to life in Blacksburg and the university.

Zhu had been seen at the Cook Counseling Center, and had exhibited some erratic behavior toward his landlord. According to court testimony, he developed an obsessive attachment to Xin, and killed her after she rebuffed his romantic advances.

Turk ruled that the plaintiffs presented no evidence of gross negligence on the part of Tech officials and failed to show that the defendants "had any control over Mr. Zhu."

The most talked-about of the cases continues to wind its way through the court system.

Two $10 million wrongful death claims filed by the parents of women slain on April 16, 2007, are set for jury trial March 5-9 in Montgomery County Circuit Court.

A trial originally set for September was continued after the plaintiffs' attorney accused the Virginia State Police and public relations firms hired by Tech of stonewalling on discovery requests.

The parents of the late Julia Pryde and Erin Peterson allege that Tech President Charles Steger and former Executive Vice President James Hyatt were grossly negligent in failing to warn their daughters of two fatal shootings in a dormitory just after 7 a.m. on April16, 2007.

About two hours later, Seung-Hui Cho opened fire in Norris Hall classrooms, killing 30 more people, including Pryde and Peterson.


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