After so many false starts in trying to find a lawyer, I contacted the office of New York congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy. Congresswoman McCarthy’s husband had been gunned down in the Long Island train shootings several years earlier. Her office staff listened sympathetically to me. Several days later they called back and recommended that I get in touch with Mr. Brian Siebel at the Brady Institute.
Mr. Siebel and the Brady Institute were helpful, but indicated our type of lawsuit was not what they dealt with. They specialize in cases centering on the way guns are accessed—how did the shooter get the gun? Mr. Siebel said that a person who is subject to a restraining order cannot buy or possess a gun. Unfortunately, this does not apply here. Peter Odighizuwa’s wife never got a restraining order. If she had it would have been unlawful to sell him a gun. Later, Siebel expressed sympathy with our plight and recommended a Washington D.C. attorney, Pat Malone.
Again, we told our story. Mr. Malone listened to me, but said he could not take the case. He referred me to Virginia attorney Ben Glass in Fairfax. Mr. Glass was very interested in our case, but said that in his opinion it should be pursued under the statutes pertaining to premises liability. Here, he recommended Peter Everett, one of Virginia’s leading specialists in this field.
“Run the facts of your case by Everett,” he said. If he thinks you have a case, “I would be happy to work with him.” He also indicated that if Everett were too busy to take the case he, Glass, would.
“DO WE HAVE A CASE?”
On June 15, 2002, I e-mailed Mr. Everett’s office outlining our case and giving him the facts as I knew them. Nearly a month went by before he responded. Everett said that he had spoken with a law firm in Covington, but they were “skittish” because of “the distance.” The Covington law firm indicated they were going to talk to a law firm in Grundy.
The result was Mr. Everett found no law firm in or around Grundy to help him. Concerned, I asked him point blank, “Do we have a case? If this were a member of your family would you proceed?” His response was yes we did have a case, but it would be very, very difficult to win in court.
The Virginia legal system is “reluctant” to set a precedent that would make any private firm or enterprise responsible for an employee or anyone in contractual relationship with them. Even if there is prior knowledge of the individual’s violent behavior and the business or organization goes ahead and hires the individual, the courts are unwilling to hold private firms—including private law schools—accountable.
The picture that was beginning to emerge through the fog of legal jargon was that private organizations can not be held accountable. If you are a private business in Virginia, you appear to get a pass on responsibility. This concept in Virginia law of exempting private businesses from practically any amount of liability separates it from many other states.
NO RECOURSE IN VIRGINIA
Had the school been a public school, it would have been next to impossible for Angie’s parents to sue. The laws of Virginia appear to have been written to exempt public institutions from premises liability lawsuits. So, it seems that in a perverse way, we are lucky the Appalachian School of Law is private. If it were a state-affiliated institution we could not sue—even in the most egregious situations.
The more I thought about this, the more dismayed I became. If I understood the situation correctly, the interpretation of the law in Virginia in effect says that even if a state school is negligent and your child is killed or injured you have no recourse in the courts! There appears to be a pattern of decisions handed down by the Virginia Supreme Court that grants blanket immunity to state schools and organizations—even in the face of blatant negligence on their part! I wonder how many parents know this when they send their children off to Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, or any state school?
In the course of my research I learned that there are three levels of prior knowledge of violence under the law in Virginia. The first level is the violence that Peter Odighizuwa may have committed in his family life—this was well documented, but the law says the school could not be expected to know about this. Fair enough.
The second level of violence concerns his actions in the community. Here again, there is documented evidence of violent behavior in the community—specifically when he threatened his wife and when he threatened co-workers while working part time at a grocery store. The courts in Virginia consistently rule that a private organization or institution cannot be expected to be aware of this. Well, maybe.
The third—and critical—level, is violence on school grounds against other students, staff and faculty. Here the evidence is clear; it is abundant. The school knew!
Peter Odighizuwa’s screams and verbal assaults against the faculty and staff were well documented, and the fact that he was barred from some school offices because staff members feared for their safety cannot be denied. (To be continued)