Virginia Tech Found Responsible for Wrongful Deaths

Defense attorney Peter Messitt represented the state in a civil lawsuit brought by the families of two students slain in the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre.

Five years after the deadliest mass murder in modern U.S. history, a jury has found that Virginia Tech officials failed to take the necessary precautions to minimize the tragedy.

On April 16, 2007, 32 people were killed and 25 wounded by senior student Seung-Hui Cho who later shot himself as police intervened. The murders occurred in two separate incidents, which became the focus of a wrongful death civil suit brought by the parents of two students who were killed.

“Today, we got what we wanted,” Celeste Peterson, the mother of a slain student, said after the verdict announcement. “The truth is out there, and that’s all we ever wanted. We came here for the truth.”

According to a timeline of events contained in the Governor’s Virginia Tech Panel Report, the first shooting took place around 7:15 a.m. in a dormitory, West Ambler Johnston. The victims were a female student and the dormitory’s resident adviser. Police were alerted five minutes later that a female student may have fallen from her loft bed. By 7:24 a.m., police had discovered the bodies of both students.

Classes began as scheduled at 8 a.m. that morning.

The Virginia Tech Policy Grodup met at 8:25 a.m. to discuss how to inform the campus about what proved to be the mere beginning of a tragedy. The incident was assumed to be isolated from the larger killings until the following day when forensic evidence proved the same gun had been used in both episodes.

The group did not send an email to campus staff, faculty and students until 9:26 a.m. By then, the Blacksburg public schools had already locked their outer doors when they were informed about the incident from their security chief who had heard it on police radio.

Cho had the opportunity to go home and get changed, delete his email account and files, go off-campus to the local post office to deliver his now infamous media kit to NBC news and return fully equipped to continue his massacre while administrators deliberated on when and how to notify the campus of the dangerous episode.

The plaintiffs argued that their children might still be alive if the Virginia Tech Police Department and administrators had alerted the campus earlier of the initial shooting.

Also, according to the Virginia Tech Guidelines for Choosing Alerting System report, an emergency response would consist of: text messaging, instant messaging, email, web posting and voice communication to cellular or land lines extensions. In this case, only an email was sent.

The second incident, in which 30 people were killed and 25 wounded, occurred at approximately 9:40 a.m. The warning email was sent 15 minutes before the second shooting, but after second period had begun.

By 9:42 a.m., the Virginia Tech PD had received a call transferred from 911 that a shooter was active in an academic building, Norris Hall. Officers arrived on the scene by 9:45 a.m. and informed the campus administration of the incident.

A second email was sent to all campus emails that a gunman was loose on the campus and to take necessary precautions at 9:50 a.m. Four loudspeakers also broadcast a message at this time. At 10:17 a.m., administrators sent an email that all classes had been cancelled.

Cho had shot himself at 9:51 a.m. when officers finally breached the barricaded doors to the academic building. He had committed the most heinous crime in recent national memory in a period of about 10 minutes.

In December 2011, shots were heard around noon as a gunman confronted a Virginia Tech police officer performing a routing traffic stop of an unrelated vehicle. The campus quickly posted a web alert with a description of the shooter, advising students to stay indoors and away from doors and windows. Students were also notified of the lockdown by sirens and Facebook and Twitter alerts.

The campus-wide alert was lifted at 4:30 p.m. after the assailant was found dead. The attack occurred on the same day that Virginia Tech was appealing a fine by the U.S. Department of Education for its response during the 2007 massacre. That fine is still in appeal.

Police were uncertain that the two incidents were in fact related. The first female victim had a boyfriend who was a suspect at least until the next day. It was only then that officials conceded the two episodes were part of the same tragedy.

“We do not believe that evidence presented at trial relative to the murders in West Ambler Johnston [the dormitory] created an increased danger to the campus that day,” said university spokesman Mark Owczarski in a prepared statement. “The heinous crimes committed by Seung-Hui Cho were an unprecedented act of violence that no one could have foreseen.”
 
The jury awarded each of the suing families $4 million for the wrongful deaths of their children. The state immediately filed a motion because Virginia law states a cap of $100,000, but jurors were unaware of this requirement.

Posted by Elizabeth Freed on Mar 15, 2012


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