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Wrongful Death Verdict Reversed In Virginia Tech Case

A wrongful death verdict related to the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech has been overturned after the Virginia Supreme Court found that school officials could not have foreseen that 32 people would die in an attack on its campus.

The ruling overturns the findings of a circuit court jury, which had said the school had not done enough to warn students and staff on campus of the threat posed by Seung-Hui Cho — specifically, during a gap of some two hours between attacks on April 16, 2007.

That gap, between an initial call at 7:30 a.m. that brought police to the scene of a shooting of two people in a dormitory and a later burst of violence around 9:45 a.m. that claimed 30 lives at another campus building, was at the heart of the plaintiffs' case.

In its 15-page decision, the court noted that police and school officials "believed that the [initial] shooting was a domestic incident and that the shooter may have been the boyfriend of one of the victims." Officials also believed the gunman had fled and posed no further danger in the area, the justices said.

The wrongful death lawsuit was filed by the families of Julia Pryde, 23, and Erin Peterson, 18.

"Last year a Montgomery County Circuit Court jury awarded each family $4 million, an amount that was reduced to $100,000 each by a state cap on damages," The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports.

From member station WVTF, Robbie Harris filed this report for our Newscast unit:

"The Justices ruled officials at Virginia Tech could not have reasonably foreseen that a shooter who killed two on campus would go on to massacre another 30 people. Parents of two students killed in the second shooting sued the state, arguing officials should have put out a campus alert.

"Virginia Tech's associate vice president for university relations Larry Hinker says that while the ruling can never reverse the loss of life, the cause was 'easy access to powerful killing weapons by a troubled young man.'

"The families who sued the state did not join in the $11 million settlement the university made with the families of the other victims."

"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," the judges said. "Thus, as a matter of law, the Commonwealth did not have a duty to protect students against third party criminal acts."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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