Tort Law

Judge OKs Duty-to-Warn Suits in Va. Tech Shootings, Nixes Immunity Claim


Rejecting, at least for now, a defense claim that sovereign immunity prevents the families of victims of the Virginia Tech shootings from suing employees of the government-run institution, a Virginia judge has OK’d discovery in duty-to-warn litigation being pursued by families of two victims of the 2007 massacre there by a student gunman.

Although Circuit Judge William Alexander dismissed other counts against university officials and a non-university government-run mental health agency, he agreed that discovery should proceed in tort claims against two top university officials, reports the Roanoke Times.

The sovereign immunity doctrine protects government employees from being sued for doing their jobs but permits damages awards in cases of alleged gross negligence. Alexander is allowing the families to proceed against university president Charles Steger and former executive vice president James Hyatt on a gross-negligence theory, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The families of Erin Peterson and Julia Pryde contend that officials didn’t do enough to warn students and protect them from mentally ill student Seung-Hui Cho. His classroom conduct had reportedly created concern among faculty members and students, and he had sought counseling before he killed 32 students and faculty and injured dozens of others on April 16, 2007. The killing spree finally ended with his own suicide.

Among other allegations, the plaintiffs argue that more should have been done to warn the campus during a two-hour gap between two initial dormitory murders that day and subsequent classroom shootings. They also contend that university officials responding to the first two shootings were more concerned about Virginia Tech’s image than alerting the campus about a potential killer on the loose, the Roanoke Times reports.

A copy of Alexander’s letter ruling (PDF) is provided by the newspaper.

In his ruling, Alexander also permits the families to continue with their duty-to-warn claims against three employees of a university counseling center. In their case, he found that sovereign immunity did not apply. Additionally, he determined that a state statute intended to limit mental health care provider liability to failing to warn third parties of potential danger posed by a client didn’t apply either, because it isn’t clear that Seung-Hui Cho was, in fact, a “client” of the counseling center.

Concerned that the sovereign immunity defense would be an absolute bar, most families accepted an $11 million settlement from the state in June 2008, the Washington Post notes.

The two families are seeking some $10 million in the Virginia case, the Associated Press reported.

Representatives of Virginia Tech and the counseling center expressed disappointment about the judge’s ruling, said their employees had acted appropriately and promised a vigorous defense.

Additional and related coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “Va. Tech Gunman Never Treated Despite Court Order, Mental Health Records Show”

ABAJournal.com: “The New Tarasoff? 6th Circuit OKs Hospital Suit Over Ax-Wielding Ex-Patient”

Associated Press: “Parts of Va. Tech Families’ Lawsuit Can Go Forward”

Richmond Times-Dispatch: “Second revision of report on Tech massacre released”

Virginia Tech Collegiate Times: “Several officials to stand trial in April 16 civil suits”

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