State's Supreme Court declines to rehear Virginia Tech shooting case
The court had earlier overturned a jury award to families of two slain students.
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Posted: Tuesday, January 21, 2014 1:08 pm
Posted on January 21, 2014
• by Tonia Moxley
On Tuesday the Supreme Court of Virginia refused to reconsider whether Virginia Tech officials, and therefore the state, were negligent in handling the April 16, 2007, campus shootings, according to an attorney in the case.
The ruling ends the case in the state court system.
Plaintiff’s attorney Bob Hall issued a statement on behalf of the families of slain students Julia Pryde and Erin Peterson, which read in part: “This case should not have ended this way.”
On Halloween, seven of the court’s justices overturned a combined $8 million jury award for the plaintiffs that was handed down by a Montgomery County Circuit Court jury in 2012. The plaintiffs then filed a petition asking the high court to reconsider its ruling.
On Tuesday, the court denied the request in an order, Hall wrote in an email. The order had not yet been entered on the Supreme Court’s website Tuesday.
The high court’s ruling was a disappointment to the families, following the 2012 victory that they said vindicated their fight on behalf of their daughters.
In March of that year, the circuit court jury ruled that Tech officials were negligent for failing to warn the campus of a shooter on the loose after a fatal early morning shooting in a West Ambler Johnston dormitory room on April 16. Less than three hours later, the same shooter chained shut the doors of Norris Hall and opened fire in second floor classrooms.
An email sent minutes before shots were fired in Norris notified the campus of a “shooting incident,” but assured recipients that police perceived no ongoing threat.
In all, 33 people — including shooter Seung-Hui Cho and Peterson and Pryde — died. More than a dozen other people were injured. The tragedy remains the highest-casualty school shooting in U.S. history.
The multi-million dollar jury award was reduced last year by the lower court to a combined $200,000 under a Virginia law that caps damages against the state. Still, the Peterson and Pryde families said at the time that the jury’s finding of negligence was most important to them.
But the state appealed, asking the state Supreme Court to overturn the jury’s verdict. The appeal alleged that the presiding judge in the case made a handful of erroneous rulings during the trial.
The Supreme Court sided with the defense, saying that Tech officials had no duty under Virginia law to warn Peterson and Pryde of potential third-party criminal acts.
Furthermore, even if a duty to warn had existed, the plaintiffs did not present sufficient evidence to prove their case, the court ruled.
Hall wrote Tuesday that in overturning the verdict, the high court disregarded “well-established principles of appellate review” that entitled the plaintiffs to “have the evidence, and all inferences that might be reasonably drawn from it, viewed in the light most favorable to them.”
“Instead the Court viewed the evidence in the light most favorable to the losing party at trial, made no mention of or citation to significant Plaintiff’s evidence which was contrary to the view the Court took, and ultimately decided the case on the basis that ‘available information after the first shootings indicated the shooter had fled the scene and posed no danger to the campus,’ ” Hall wrote.
“But, there was no such information. That was a fiction floated by the university to deflect attention away from its failure to warn the campus. It had no factual support, but that didn’t keep the Court from making it a center piece of its decision to set aside the verdicts,” Hall wrote.
Tech spokesman Larry Hincker reiterated Tuesday that university officials are pleased with the high court’s rulings.
In a prepared statement released in November, Hincker added that the court’s “actions can never reverse the loss of lives nor the pain experienced by so many families and friends of victims of one person. In the end, the cause of these heinous acts and continuing heartbreak was a troubled and angry young man with easy access to powerful killing weapons.”