Lawsuit in Virginia Tech shooting dismissed

posted at 8:31 am on November 2, 2013 by Jazz Shaw

Following the horrific events on the day when Seung-Hui Cho shot up Virginia Tech, the families of two of the shooting victims brought suit against the university and the state for negligence, claiming that they had failed to sufficiently inform and protect the rest of the students or to anticipate the potential damage. I found this one to be particularly interesting because it seemed to pave the way for any entity where large groups of people gather to be held financially liable for the unpredictable nature of the occasional damaged and deranged human above and beyond normal precautions. An early ruling in the case awarded the families $2M each. A subsequent appeals hearing reduced the damages to $100K each. And now, the highest court in the state has dismissed the claim entirely.

A multi-million dollar negligence lawsuit filed by the families of two victims of the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting has been dismissed by Virginia’s highest court.

The state justices said Thursday that given the initial uncertainty and confusion surrounding the actions of the student gunman, “there was no duty for the Commonwealth to warn students about the potential for criminal acts by third parties,” meaning gunman Seung-Hui Cho.

He went on a shooting rampage on the Blacksburg, Virginia, campus that left 32 people dead. The young man then took his own life.

Eugene Volokh finds the pertinent portion of the ruling which explains why the liability shouldn’t be as broad as the plaintiffs maintained.

[E]ven if there was a special relationship between the Commonwealth and students of Virginia Tech, under the facts of this case, there was no duty for the Commonwealth to warn students about the potential for criminal acts by third parties….

[E]ven if this Court were to apply the less stringent standard of “know or have reasonably foreseen,” there simply are not sufficient facts from which this Court could conclude that the duty to protect students against third party criminal acts arose as a matter of law. In this case, the Commonwealth knew that there had been a shooting in a dormitory in which one student was critically wounded and one was murdered. The Commonwealth also knew that the shooter had not been apprehended. At that time, the Commonwealth did not know who the shooter was, as law enforcement was in the early stages of its investigation of the crime.

However, based on representations from three different police departments, Virginia Tech officials believed that the shooting was a domestic incident and that the shooter may have been the boyfriend of one of the victims. Most importantly, based on the information available at that time, the defendants believed that the shooter had fled the area and posed no danger to others…. Based on the limited information available to the Commonwealth prior to the shootings in Norris Hall, it cannot be said that it was known or reasonably foreseeable that students in Norris Hall would fall victim to criminal harm. Thus, as a matter of law, the Commonwealth did not have a duty to protect students against third party criminal acts.

There is no doubt that the families of all affected by this shooting – including the two who brought the suit – have been through hell and they still have lingering questions. I suppose “what if” is one of the hardest things to live with after something like that. If the University had gone into a prolonged, hard lock-down as soon as trouble was reported, things may – may – have ended differently. Or perhaps it would have just been a different group of innocent people who met Cho’s wrath. We’ll never know.

But assigning liability in this sort of case could also set a very unpleasant precedent for the rest of the nation, leading us one step further down the road to a completely shrink-wrapped society and a general expectation that providing any sort of services to large numbers of people will result in your eventually being sued for stratospheric fines. It’s one thing to open a factory which uses potentially hazardous chemicals and not provide safeguards against them for your employees. But it’s yet another to assume that every place where more than three people gather can somehow be made fireproof against the sudden, violent actions of a madman who goes off the edge of sanity.

This ruling looks appropriate to me.


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Then if they’re not liable, they shouldn’t hamstring those gathered and allow people to protect themselves.

Jeff Weimer on November 2, 2013 at 8:37 AM

The law ties a lot of hands when dealing with the mentally ill. And I remember the initial reports about the Virginia Tech shooting, where they thought it was domestic.

Sekhmet on November 2, 2013 at 8:40 AM

Without a showing of some breach of some duty leading up to the shootings, it is hard to see how the State of Virginia is liable for the actions of a mad man.

Mr. Joe on November 2, 2013 at 8:41 AM

Good, their is still hope for common sense in the judicial system.

celt on November 2, 2013 at 8:41 AM

There..

celt on November 2, 2013 at 8:43 AM

They filed the wrong charges. What they should have done was sue the University and the state for denying people the means to defend themselves.

IIRC, there were a few people who had CCW’s but obeyed the laws and weren’t carrying.

If you deny people the means to protect themselves AND you won’t provide the means to protect them, then you are responsible and need to be broken on the legal Wheels.

evilned on November 2, 2013 at 9:11 AM

Then if they’re not liable, they shouldn’t hamstring those gathered and allow people to protect themselves.

Jeff Weimer on November 2, 2013 at 8:37 AM

+1

M240H on November 2, 2013 at 9:29 AM

… don’t get our shorts all bundled up!…not to worry!…if anything happens in a mall or theater, or other privately owned entity…the judicial ruling would have been different!

KOOLAID2 on November 2, 2013 at 9:33 AM

There..

celt on November 2, 2013 at 8:43 AM

They’re.

How could the university possibly have an ironclad procedure for an entire campus, the study areas alone would be impossible to completely protect short of encasing every student in an armored box.

I once carried surreptitiously on campus back in the day when Minnesota still shiite its collective pants at the thought, a Browning BDA .380, a little thing. I only did so for a couple of days just to see what it felt like, and managed not to kill anyone in that time.

Bishop on November 2, 2013 at 9:39 AM

Eugene Volokh finds the pertinent portion of the ruling which explains why the liability shouldn’t be as broad as the plaintiffs maintained.

What does this sentence mean? Finds it what? Persuasive? Unpersuasive? In analysis, the word find is followed by some word, phrase, or clause providing some, er, analysis.

Beyond that, invest in a usage guide (say, Garner’s Modern American Usage [3rd ed. 2009]), and learn the distinction between the restrictive that and the nonrestrictive which. You’ll improve your writing overnight.

BuckeyeSam on November 2, 2013 at 9:44 AM

Then if they’re not liable, they shouldn’t hamstring those gathered and allow people to protect themselves.

Jeff Weimer on November 2, 2013 at 8:37 AM

A court should find one of these institutions liable one day for their capricious and cynical restriction of the right to self-defense on their campus. That would be a *real* civil rights victory.

HitNRun on November 2, 2013 at 9:52 AM

Then if they’re not liable, they shouldn’t hamstring those gathered and allow people to protect themselves.

Jeff Weimer on November 2, 2013 at 8:37 AM

Seriously. When people want to arm themselves for protection, the college would whine about being afraid of lawsuits. Well, there you go. You’re not liable. You’re off the hook.

CurtZHP on November 2, 2013 at 9:53 AM

A court should find one of these institutions liable one day for their capricious and cynical restriction of the right to self-defense on their campus. That would be a *real* civil rights victory.

HitNRun on November 2, 2013 at 9:52 AM

“The only protection from a bad man with a gun is a good man with a gun.”

Repeat as necessary.

RoadRunner on November 2, 2013 at 10:00 AM

They filed the wrong charges. What they should have done was sue the University and the state for denying people the means to defend themselves.

evilned on November 2, 2013 at 9:11 AM

Those are the charges that need to be brought.

paul1149 on November 2, 2013 at 10:12 AM

We should have just put up a sign declaring the campus a “gun free zone”. That way, no one would have had a gun. Then no one would have been hurt.

oldleprechaun on November 2, 2013 at 10:16 AM

evilned on November 2, 2013 at 9:11 AM

Fancy meeting you here.

I second the notion, and on a related note, whatever happened to “cowboy up,” “pay your money and take your chances.”

rginco on November 2, 2013 at 10:20 AM

I will say that after a lot of the incidents we find that killers have done some really blatantly odd things and that the police of used their discretion not to put it on record. Time to stop being “nice”.

Cindy Munford on November 2, 2013 at 10:27 AM

I think the real liability in something like this is to deny people the right to defend themselves.

NotCoach on November 2, 2013 at 10:32 AM

This gun free zone nonsense on college campi needs to stop. Ditto for military bases.

neyney on November 2, 2013 at 10:50 AM

the people who would advocate for allowing this type of suit would probably also be the type who rail against corporations. have never seen an anti corporation advocate sue every individual of a company when they file suit for some slight, imagined or real.
people just want to assign blame to recount losses. and blaming the shooter gets them no $$$.

dmacleo on November 2, 2013 at 10:52 AM

The lawsuit is already on some lawyers desk to sue LAX. Not that their client was shoot but they have mental trauma from having to run and LAX should have to pay.

tjexcite on November 2, 2013 at 11:19 AM

Without a showing of some breach of some duty leading up to the shootings, it is hard to see how the State of Virginia is liable for the actions of a mad man. Mr. Joe on November 2, 2013 at 8:41 AM

Making the campus a “gun free” zone establishes liability for whatever happened that armed citizens could have prevented, to my silly way of thinking.

Akzed on November 2, 2013 at 12:34 PM

What does this sentence mean? Finds it what? Persuasive? Unpersuasive? In analysis, the word find is followed by some word, phrase, or clause providing some, er, analysis.

Beyond that, invest in a usage guide (say, Garner’s Modern American Usage [3rd ed. 2009]), and learn the distinction between the restrictive that and the nonrestrictive which. You’ll improve your writing overnight.

BuckeyeSam on November 2, 2013 at 9:44 AM

I conceal carry to protect myself against the grammar police.

thuja on November 2, 2013 at 12:51 PM

Were not the VT administrators largely responsible for convincing the state legislators the Concealed Carry must not be allowed on college campuses in Virginia?or were the lawyers in the case anti gun themselves and refused to bring it up in court?

jhnone on November 2, 2013 at 3:39 PM

But it’s yet another to assume that every place where more than three people gather can somehow be made fireproof against the sudden, violent actions of a madman who goes off the edge of sanity.

This ruling looks appropriate to me.

The reason you are wrong is because of the ” GUN FREE ZONE “. If the average person who has a CHL is barred from protecting themselves, and potentially OTHER people then the business, college, school or state who sanctions the gun-bans should be held liable for preventing people from protecting themselves with legal firearms.

TX-96 on November 2, 2013 at 6:38 PM