Virginia Tech shooting: Lawsuit against university president dismissed

The 2007 shootings clamined the lives of 32 people.

CHRISTIANSBURG, Va. (AP) - Virginia Tech President Charles Steger no longer faces wrongful death lawsuits filed by the families of two students who were killed in the 2007 mass shootings on campus, leaving only the state as a defendant in the case weeks before it is set to go to trial.

Special Justice William Alexander notified the parties in a Jan. 25 letter first reported Friday by the Roanoke Times.

Attorney Bob Hall, who represents the families of Julia Pryde and Erin Peterson, asked Alexander to reinstate Steger. A telephone hearing on that motion will be held on Tuesday.

The families originally sued several parties, claiming in part that the university put public relations and a fundraising campaign ahead of students' safety when it failed to send out a timely warning after two students were shot in a dormitory on the morning of April 16, 2007. The university waited two hours to send out notice that a "shooting incident" had occurred, but by the time it went out student gunman Seung-Hui Cho had chained shut the doors to a classroom building, where he went on to kill 30 more students and faculty before committing suicide.

All other parties, including other university officials, counseling center employees, Cho's estate and local mental health officials, had previously been dismissed.

Alexander cited a legal technicality in dismissing Steger from the $10 million lawsuits.

When the families first sued in 2009, they filed complaints in King George County Circuit Court and in Montgomery County Circuit Court. The King George County complaints, which did not include the state as a defendant, were based on civil rights violations and were later dismissed. The wrongful death complaint in Montgomery County was more detailed and included the state.

Alexander wrote that the King George County dismissal extends to Montgomery County, where it "bars the plaintiffs' claims against Defendant Steger, and each complaint against Steger will be dismissed, with prejudice."

"As we have asserted from the beginning, President Steger, using the information available at the time, acted in the best interests of the university community, as he has for the four decades he has served Virginia Tech," university spokesman Larry Hincker said in a statement.

"An unthinkable, unconscionable, heinous crime was committed under the hands of Seung-Hui Cho on that terrible day in 2007," Hincker wrote. "... We resolved to learn from the tragedy. We remember the lives lost. We honor them, and we always will."

A jury trial is set for March 5 through March 9 in Montgomery County Circuit Court.

Virginia Tech was fined $55,000 by the U.S. Department of Education for violating federal law by not notifying the campus community earlier about the first two shootings. The university appealed that decision, and arguments in that appeal were heard in December. Education Department administrative judge Ernest C. Canellos has yet to rule in that case.

Hall, the families' attorney, said Steger's dismissal wouldn't necessarily handicap their case.

"Steger's role in the case will be central to the claims against the university so the evidence at the upcoming trial will not be significantly different either way," he said in an email to the newspaper.

Steger's dismissal could change the case from a wrongful death case to a claim against the state, where awards are capped.

Alexander also questioned the families' claims that a group of administrators who were concerned that sending out a notification would hurt the university's image in the run-up to a $1 billion capital campaign successfully quashed an earlier warning. Attorneys for the university have consistently denied that claim.

Now that discovery is almost complete, Alexander wrote, "it is apparent plaintiffs lack the evidence to prove the fundraising campaign in any way played into the preparation and giving of the statement to the University that was ultimately given." But he said a jury should determine whether the lack of an earlier warning that morning amounts to gross negligence by the state.

Most of the families of the 32 people slain accepted their share of an $11 million state settlement. The families of Pryde and Peterson refused to participate.

They alleged that employees of the Cook Counseling Center on campus, in addition to the state, Steger and other university officials, should have known about Cho's bizarre and threatening behavior that was documented by his professors, but they failed to provide treatment when he contacted the center in 2005. The lawsuit also named the New River Valley Community Services Board and employees, claiming they failed to monitor Cho after a special justice found him mentally ill and a danger to himself and others. He was ordered to receive outpatient treatment, but he did not.

Alexander was appointed by the Virginia Supreme Court to oversee the case after several local judges recused themselves.