Parties in Va. Tech suit seek high court hearing

Va. justices hear from state, attorneys for 2 Virginia Tech families who lost daughters in '07

Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- Attorneys for the parents of two students who were killed in the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre asked Tuesday for a state Supreme Court hearing on their request to put Tech's president on trial for negligence, while the state sought to reverse a jury's conclusion that the state was negligent for failing to alert students right away when the shootings began on the campus.

Both sides asked a panel of three Supreme Court justices to decide if the full court will hear the appeals. A decision is expected in four to six weeks.

The dueling appeals stem from a jury's findings in March 2012 that the university botched its response to the April 16, 2007, killing spree, which left the gunman and 32 students and faculty dead in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

Jurors awarded the parents of Julia Pryde and Erin Peterson each $4 million for the negligence verdict, but a judge later reduced the damages to the state cap on such awards at $100,000. Only the state was named in the lawsuit.

Virginia Tech President Charles Steger was initially named in the wrongful death lawsuit, but the trial judge in the successful civil action exempted him on a legal technicality. After some earlier lawsuits that named Steger were dismissed, the judge ruled that the families are barred from naming him as a defendant in new complaints.

That issue was the focus of the legal argument presented by an attorney for the parents, L. Steven Emmert.

Outside of the Supreme Court building, the attorney who brought the civil action against the state explained why the families are persisting in pursuing a retrial that includes Steger.

"The buck stops with Steger," attorney Robert T. Hall said in an interview. "He had a duty to warn, he didn't warn, he lied about it and he's the guy in charge, so that's why they want to adjudicate this."

Hall has argued that the lives of Pryde and Peterson could have been spared if school officials had moved more quickly to alert the Blacksburg campus after the first two victims were shot in a dorm. The killing ended later in the morning with the deaths 31 more people, including student gunman Seung-Hui Cho, in a classroom building.

The state argued the university did all that it could with the information available at the time. Steger and other university officials said they initially believed the first two shootings were isolated instances of domestic violence, based on what police investigators told them.

Deputy Attorney General Wesley G. Russell Jr. sought to reverse the jury's verdict based on trial errors, including jury instructions, and a lack of evidence to support the juror's findings. He also argued that Virginia Tech officials have immunity from the actions of third-party criminal acts.

Russell also questioned whether students and others would have been shielded from Cho if they were told a gunman was loose on campus and were advised to remain where they were, including Norris Hall, where all but two of the killings occurred. "Those students would be in Norris Hall when Cho showed up," he said.

The Prydes and the Petersons were the only Tech families to turn down an $11 million settlement, which was split between 24 families.

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Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.

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