In Virginia, if the law is not specifically written to protect public institutions and organizations such as schools and universities from legal action, the law is consistently interpreted that way. The Virginia Supreme Court has said, “In Virginia, we adhere to the rule that the owner or occupier of land ordinarily is under no duty to protect an invitee from a third person’s criminal act committed while the invitee is upon the premises.” Gupton v. Quicke, 247 VA. 362, 363, 442 S.E.2d 658, 658 (1994). The court has also said that, “We also have stressed that ‘before any duty can arise with regard to the conduct of third persons, there must be a special relationship between the defendant and either the plaintiff or the third person.”
Peter Odighizuwa had a “special relationship” with the Appalachian School of Law. Ironically, one of the victims—Dean Sutin—had done a great deal to help Odighizuwa. There is ample evidence that Peter Odighizuwa received “special treatment” from the school. For example, Sutin raised enough money to buy Odighizuwa a car, clothes, and food. I can find no examples of this being done for any other student. As already noted in this book, Dean Sutin helped Odighizuwa get a loan of $19,000 to reenter the school in the fall of 2001. There is a great deal of evidence that the Appalachian School of Law bent over backwards to ensure that Odighizuwa could continue his studies. For example, while other students flunked out, Mr. Odighizuwa was given the opportunity to drop classes so that he could remain a student in good standing and the school would have its minority student.
It would be hard for anyone to deny that there was a “special relationship” between Peter Odighizuwa and the Appalachian School of Law. The lawsuit filed on behalf of our granddaughter was settled out of court, so we will never know if the courts would have recognized this “special relationship.” The fact that a settlement was reached certainly is an indication that the school felt the evidence of this relationship existed. The school did not settle for the full amount of their liability insurance policy out of the goodness of their heart. They did not settle because they had $1 million lying around and didn’t know what to do with it. The law school settled because it was genuinely concerned that even in Virginia they would be found culpable.
In settling the lawsuit to avoid going to trial, the school said it did nothing wrong, it admitted no guilt. If true, then in Virginia—the way the law is interpreted—the school could easily have won because even when a “special relationship” exists, and the Virginia Supreme Court acknowledges that it exists, the court has ruled that the business owner has no obligation to protect anyone.
In the case of Wright v Webb, 234 Va. at 533, 362, S.E.2d at 922, (1987) the court addressed the “special relationship” between the business owner and the invitee. The court held “that despite the existence of that special relationship, the business owner does not owe a duty of care to protect its invitee unless it ‘knows that criminal assaults against persons are occurring, or are about to occur, on the premises which indicate an imminent probability of harm to (its) invitee.’” The court went on to say, “We further held that for the duty to be imposed there must be ‘notice of a specific danger just prior to the assault.” In our case, there was a history of Peter Odighizuwa’s violence and threats on the school grounds. The Virginia Supreme Court, in other words, acknowledges owners have responsibilities in certain cases to guard or warn against violence. But the court itself in the case of Michael R. Dudas vs. Glenwood Golf Club, Inc., 261 Va. 133,540 S.E. 2d 129 Va. Lexis 5, (2001) describes this responsibility as a “narrow exception.” The court sets the bar so high that private businesses are all but immune from prosecution. The Virginia Supreme Court says that in its view “to require a business owner who, through no fault of its own, has been victimized by assaultive criminals coming onto its property, to thereafter give warnings of the remote but potential danger of injury from the acts of such criminals would unfairly burden that business owner in light of the potential harm such warnings could do its reputation and the loss of its trade which would inevitably result.”
It is next to impossible to read the mountains of court findings and not come to the conclusion that the legal profession and courts in Virginia are more concerned about protecting businesses and profits, than protecting human life and safety. The court seems to be saying that to make a business—whether it is convenience store or private law school—responsible to warn its employees or customers about potential danger is “unfair.” Unfair to whom? It is unfair to Angie that she lost her right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is unfair to our granddaughter that she lost a loving and caring mother.
If you listen to the media in Virginia, you come away with the feeling that the state is overwhelmingly a “right to life” state. But when you examine the actions of the courts you realize that “right to life” is only for the unborn; “right to life” often does not extend to the living. This right does not extent to a young woman sitting in the student lounge at the Appalachian School of Law having lunch. The “right to life” in Virginia, appears to be narrowly defined to fit the rights of businesses. To quote William Bennett, “Where is the outrage?” Where is the anger over this hypocrisy?
Throughout the United States, the law does acknowledge “norms” of behavior in many professions. In universities and colleges throughout the country and in Virginia, the norm includes campus security. Industry and professional “norms” are often cited in lawsuits. It is ironic that a school that trains lawyers to examine “norms” and “standards” would disregard safety norms.
Campus security specialists say that part of their job is to identify students who have abnormal behavior, and get them help before something happens. What a simple, elementary concept. Yet this simple “norm” apparently escaped the attention of the law school faculty and administrative staff.
The Appalachian School of Law had no campus security at the time of the shooting. Since January 16, 2002, they have hired a night watchman. The shooting occurred during the day, not at night. Students I have talked to report that his main function appears to be to sleep on the job. Throughout Virginia other small schools do have security and crisis plans. Schools such as Lynchburg College and Randolph Macon College have plans in place to deal with and respond to a crisis. The Appalachian School had no such plan, and to my knowledge has no such plan to this day.
A check of over 40 institutions of higher learning in Virginia—private and public—found that all had campus security predating September 11th. Only the Appalachian School of Law had no campus security.
Technically, under Virginia law the Appalachian School of Law argues that it had no responsibility to have campus security —but in the American legal system, technically is the refuge of scoundrels. Technically is what allows those with connections--the wealthy and the influential--to ignore legal standards, common sense, the norm, and common decency.
The school--as much as anyone in Virginia--understands that there are standards of any profession to which members of that profession are expected to adhere. This rule most certainly applied to campus security. Indeed, schools throughout Virginia not only have campus security, but many have emergency response teams and action plans; the Appalachian School of Law had none—nothing. (To be continued)