Jury Holds Virginia Tech Accountable for Students' Deaths, Raising Expectations of Colleges

Steve Helber, AP Images

A memorial at Virginia Tech commemorates the victims of a 2007 shooting rampage. A jury's finding that the university was negligent in its actions the morning of the shootings highlights the level of accountability that colleges are held to, experts said.
March 14, 2012

For the way Virginia Tech handled the mass shootings on its campus five years ago, the university has faced investigations by state and federal agencies and an enduring trial in the court of public opinion. On Wednesday, the first jury to examine the events of April 16, 2007, ruled correspondingly: It found the university negligent for not issuing timelier warnings of an active threat and awarded large sums to two families whose daughters were killed.

The verdict sends a strong message to colleges: "an expectation of more," said Peter F. Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University College of Law. "Higher education is under the microscope now," he said. "The accountability level has definitely changed."

The case against Virginia Tech began with a civil lawsuit filed in state court by the parents of Erin N. Peterson and Julia K. Pryde, who were each in class (Ms. Peterson in French, Ms. Pryde in hydrology) when a fellow student, Seung-Hui Cho, burst into classrooms in Norris Hall and shot them, along with 28 other students and staff. The rampage in the academic building began about two hours after the discovery of two shootings, both of them ultimately fatal, in a residence hall that morning.

In their lawsuit, the parents of Ms. Peterson and Ms. Pryde argued that if university officials had warned the campus more promptly after the earlier shootings—say, at the same time they contacted the governor to report one student dead, another injured, and a gunman on the loose—the young women would have taken precautions, altering their schedules.

"Our daughters and the other students and faculty were entitled to that information, too, and would be alive today if that information had been shared," the parents' lawyer, Bob Hall, said in a statement on their behalf as the trial began. "All we've been looking for is accountability."

On Wednesday, Mr. Hall welcomed the jury's finding and its award of $4-million to each family, an amount that will most likely be reduced to $100,000, the cap in civil cases against the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Damages aside, said Mr. Hall, "the verdict represents accountability." For five years, he said, university officials have perpetuated what he sees as a "phony timeline" to contend that they didn't have the right information to send a warning to the campus sooner. The trial finally yielded what the families of victims had yearned for, he said: a full accounting of that day—of who knew what when, and how they reacted.

And the verdict brought vindication, said S. Daniel Carter, a national expert on campus safety and advocate for the victims at Virginia Tech. "For the families, it is important to see justice done," he said, "for a legal authority to say, 'More should have been done to protect their children.'"

In a written statement, Virginia Tech officials expressed disappointment with the decision, calling the shootings "an unprecedented act of violence that no one could have foreseen." The state attorney general's office issued a similar statement, saying, in part: "Only with hindsight can one conclude that Cho's unprecedented acts were foreseeable."

The university's president, Charles W. Steger, wrote a letter to faculty and staff. "We stand by our long-held position that the administration and law enforcement at Virginia Tech did their absolute best with the information available," he said, echoing the university's defense in state and federal investigations. He suggested that Virginia Tech would appeal the verdict.

Finding Foreseeability

The Petersons and Prydes were the only two families who lost relatives in the second shootings and did not agree to an $11-million settlement with the university and state, before anybody sued, in 2008. That settlement granted each family $100,000; additional compensation for medical and mental-health expenses; meetings with state-government and university officials; and joint access to a $3.7-million "public purpose" fund for campus-safety projects, memorial activities, and alleviation of severe personal hardships related to the killings.

In their lawsuit, the Petersons and Prydes alleged gross negligence by the university; named 19 individuals, including Mr. Steger, as defendants; and asked for $10-million each in damages. The case withstood the university's motion to dismiss it, but a judge removed all of the individual defendants and left only the state, which meant, under Virginia law, that damages were capped at $100,000 per family.

Across the country, many families of students who have died, usually accidentally or by suicide, file wrongful-death cases against colleges, but such cases almost always are settled out of court. It is very rare for a case to proceed to a jury trial. However, Virginia Tech officials were determined to defend themselves. As the trial began, they issued a confident statement similar to many in the past five years, even Mr. Steger's on Wednesday.

"The facts and law ultimately will sustain our longstanding position," the statement before the trial said, "that the university's leaders acted appropriately."

The question observers have repeatedly asked is whether, after the early-morning shootings, a campuswide warning should have been faster and clearer.

The first shootings prompted a 911 call to Virginia Tech police at 7:15 a.m. In 15 minutes, officers were on the scene and saw one student dead and another critically injured. After a series of meetings among top administrators, the university sent out, at 9:26 a.m., a warning about a "shooting incident." By then the gunman was in Norris Hall and had chained the doors shut.

In testimony during the trial this week and last, representatives for the families argued that after the first shootings, there was a foreseeable possibility of harm. Lawyers and witnesses for the university countered that police officers, observing what looked to them like a domestic dispute, did not perceive a continuing threat. Warnings, they said, must come only when there is an imminent probability of harm.

"There was no way we would know what would happen," Mr. Steger testified at the trial, according to news reports. Also, before notifying the campus that students had been killed and wounded, administrators were trying to contact the victims' families. Mr. Steger and defense lawyers initially attributed that decision to the late vice president for student affairs, Zenobia L. Hikes, to the anger of some faculty members, who saw her as being made a scapegoat. Lawyers for the university later said Ms. Hikes was merely relaying a message from the campus police department not to release any news of the victims.

Focus on Timing

Defending themselves against the U.S. Department of Education—which found in 2010 that Virginia Tech had violated campus crime-reporting law with a warning that was too late and too vague—university officials said they were being held to a standard of immediacy introduced only after the tragedy on their campus. Their appeal of the finding, which carries a $55,000 fine, is still pending. (The latest hearing took place in December, the same day as another shooting at Virginia Tech, after which the university was praised for its swift response.)

But before April 16, 2007, campus police officers and administrators took time to investigate crimes or suspicious incidents, Dolores A. Stafford, a former chief of police at George Washington University who now consults with colleges, including Virginia Tech, said in an interview on Wednesday. "People honestly felt like they had the opportunity to look at the facts."

Now, she said, citing recent amendments to campus crime-reporting law, notification is the top priority. "The focus is on getting out the warning as quickly as possible, even if you don't have all the facts."

Deliberation may have been the industry standard before 2007, but immediacy was still required, said Mr. Carter, the campus-safety advocate. Guidance published by the Education Department in 2005 urged administrators to send warnings "as soon as the pertinent information is available," he said on Wednesday.

Virginia Tech did not do that, said Mr. Carter, who soon after the shootings filed a complaint with the Education Department against the university. "Instead of getting the word out quickly," he said, "they got bogged down in a bureaucratic process."

Scrutiny of that process has brought more attention to timing: Mr. Carter even lobbied for a federal requirement that colleges issue warnings within 30 minutes of emergencies. That time limit wasn't imposed, but institutions have refined their crisis plans, especially for notification. "The lessons of 4/16 have made campuses profoundly safer," he said.

And the verdict against Virginia Tech this week reminds colleges that the public holds them more accountable than, say, employers, Mr. Carter said. "Because of the trust placed in institutions of higher education," he said, "quite frankly there are higher expectations."

Awaiting Appeals

If Virginia Tech appeals Wednesday's verdict, it is unlikely to succeed, said Carl Tobias, a professor of law at the University of Richmond who has followed the case. "It's difficult to overturn a jury verdict of this sort, very fact specific and fact sensitive," he said. "It's a pretty clear victory for the plaintiffs."

But the university has indicated that it may appeal. If it does, the families' lawyer, Mr. Hall, promises to appeal the dismissal of Mr. Steger from the lawsuit, the condition that limited the damages.

Meanwhile, the five years since the shootings have not brought legal resolution or softened stances on either side. The families want an apology, Mr. Hall said; they were upset that Mr. Steger didn't give one during the trial.

"He was public-relations trained not to apologize," Mr. Hall said. "I would be delighted on the day the university ... finally says, 'OK, look, we made a mistake.'"

Virginia Tech officials, however, are still seeking acknowledgment that they did all they could to protect their students and staff. At the same time, they want to move on.

"Reliving this pain has been especially difficult for us all," Mr. Steger said in his letter to faculty and staff on Wednesday. "I hope that this adverse ruling does not affect your continued road to recovery."

With appeals, the case may last for another few years.

Clarification (3/16, 5:09 p.m.): This article has been updated to clarify statements during the trial by Virginia Tech's president and lawyers about the decision to exclude any news of the victims of the original shootings from the first alert. They only initially attributed that decision to Zenobia L. Hikes, the late vice president for student affairs. Lawyers for the university later said Ms. Hikes was merely relaying a message from the campus police department to wait to disclose that one student had been killed and another wounded.