Virginia Judge Reduces the Amount of Damages in Lawsuits Over Virginia Tech Massacre

667182_amphitheather.jpgIn neighboring Virginia, a judge reduced damages awarded to two families whose daughters were murdered in the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, but affirmed that the university was negligent for failing to alert the campus sooner.

A jury had previously found that Virginia Tech acted unreasonably by delaying warning students about Seung-Hui Cho’s first two shootings on the Blacksburg campus in April 2007. The gunman would later kill 30 more people, both students and faculty, before turning the gun on himself. The parents of two students lambasted the university for waiting more than two hours to alert the campus, claiming that if they had acted with more care, their daughters might be alive today.

During the trial, university officials had testified that police investigators were working under the assumption that the first two shootings, which took place in a dorm, were examples of targeted domestic violence. Police failed to fully inform the campus of the shootings despite the fact that the gunman was still at large. Only until the gunman had chained the doors of Norris Hall and completed his killings was a full alert issued.

Franklin County Circuit Judge William Alexander II brought down the initial jury award from $4 million to each family to $100,000 for each family, the highest amount allowed under a cap on damages against the state. While the State of Virginia, representing the university, claimed to be pleased that the damages were reduced, but vowed to appeal the ruling to the Virginia Supreme Court. The State intends to argue that the university had no duty to warn the campus after the first two shootings. Meanwhile, the attorney representing the two families is also seeking to press a negligence claim against Virginia Tech President Charles Steger in the Supreme Court. If they took Steger to trial, it would increase the likelihood of collecting larger damages — up to $2 million — from the state’s risk management plan.

We at the Wolfe Law Firm are deeply sympathetic to the students’ families and are grateful that no such tragedy has befallen a West Virginia campus. Few things are worse than finding out that you or your children are not safe at school, and that those entrusted with protecting either you or they have failed at this job. If you are in a situation where you or your loved one are harmed by neglect by your school or another public entity, you should find an experienced West Virginia personal injury attorney as soon as possible.

One difficulty more and more people are encountering is a cap on damages in negligence lawsuits. West Virginia has a cap on noneconomic damages for medical malpractice suits, but not a cap for general negligence suits aimed against the state. It seems hypocritical for the State of Virginia to place a cap on its liability, while having no such cap if the same actions had occurred at a private university. Caps on damages are simply problematic regardless.

First, on a purely moral level, to say that one person’s life is worth a mere $100,000 devalues life itself. Second, the cap takes away the jury’s responsibility to determine the state’s true culpability. The state’s actions could have been slightly harmful or very harmful, but as long as in both cases amount to $100,000 in damages, they are seen as equal. Finally, placing a cap on damages often discourages attorneys from taking on negligence cases, out of concern that attorney’s fees and costs would not be recouped even if the client’s case were successful. Fortunately, West Virginia does not have this problem yet, and hopefully, legislators will be wise enough to ensure that it never becomes that way.