Va. Tech verdict likely not the last legal word

By Steve Szkotak

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, March 15 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Presiding Judge William Alexander reads instructions to the jury in Montgomery County Circuit Court in Christiansburg Va. on Wednesday March 14 2012. Jurors began deliberating Wednesday over a lawsuit filed by the parents of two students slain in the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre claiming school officials botched their response when the first reports came in that a gunman was on campus. Attorneys for the university have countered that there was no way to anticipate the man who committed those first two killings April 16 in a dormitory would carry out the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

The Roanoke Times, Matt Gentry, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

CHRISTIANSBURG, Va. — After a jury concluded Wednesday that Virginia Tech officials were negligent in their actions leading up to the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, the state is giving strong signals of appealing the case.

The verdict in the wrongful death lawsuit is the latest of three decisions that have faulted the university for its actions on April 16, 2007, when it hesitated at letting students know of a gunman on campus who ultimately fatally shot 32 people before killing himself.

Jurors sided with the parents of two students slain in the massacre — Julia Pryde and Erin Peterson — that officials should have known the campus was at risk without a gunman in custody. The parents said the botched response led to the deaths of their daughters.

Virginia Tech spokesman Mark Owczarski said after the verdict that the school would review the case with the attorney general's office before deciding on any further options.

"We are disappointed with today's decision and stand by our long-held position that the administration and law enforcement at Virginia Tech did their absolute best with the information available on April 16, 2007," Owczarski said in a statement.

Likewise, the attorney general's office said it was discussing "our options" with the Virginia Tech administration on an appeal.

Officials stuck with their argument that President Charles Steger and other university officials relied on the best information they had that morning involving the rampage by student gunman Seung-Hui Cho.

"The uncontradicted evidence presented at trial established that it was the unanimous decision of three law enforcement agencies that the mass shooting was simply not foreseeable," the attorney general's office said in a statement after the verdict. "Only with hindsight can one conclude that Cho's unprecedented acts were foreseeable."

The parents said their persistence is what their daughters would have wanted. They were the only eligible families to reject their share of an $11 million dollar settlement in 2008, instead taking the state to court in a wrongful death lawsuit.

The $11 million settlement was split between 24 families, excluding other disbursements such as $1.9 million set aside in a hardship fund. The state could not immediately provide a per-family breakdown of the settlement.

"When you know that something is right you're not deterred from your course," said Peterson, whose daughter Erin died in the mass shooting. "We wanted the truth from the very beginning and we got it. All I know is today we got what we wanted."

The lawsuit Peterson and her husband filed along with the parents of Julia Pryde was the last pending litigation over the mass shootings. The state is appealing a separate fine handed down by federal education officials. No criminal charges were brought in the shootings. It's not clear if any more civil lawsuits will be filed.

The jury determined the Prydes and Petersons each deserved $4 million, but the award is likely to be sharply reduced. State law requires it to be capped at $100,000.

Still, the amount of the award mattered little to the two families.

"We were looking for truth for a long time," Harry Pryde said outside the courthouse that's less than 10 miles from Virginia Tech's Blacksburg campus. "We persevered and we got some truth today."

The state, the lone defendant in the case, argued that the university did all it could with the information available at the time. Steger and other university officials have said they initially believed the first two shootings were isolated instances of domestic violence, based on what police investigators told them.

"The university's contention has been all along, to quote president Steger, 'We did everything we could do,'" said Robert T. Hall, an attorney for the parents. "Obviously the jury didn't buy that."

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