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.