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Court reverses jury verdict in Virginia Tech death suit

Officials had no duty to warn, state justices say

Virginia Tech president Charles W. Steger praised the Virginia attorney general’s office for fighting the lawsuit.

Steve Helber/associated Press

Virginia Tech president Charles W. Steger praised the Virginia attorney general’s office for fighting the lawsuit.

The Virginia Supreme Court has overturned a jury verdict in the wrongful death lawsuit filed against the state by the families of two students who were killed in the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre.

In a decision released Thursday, the justices wrote that ‘‘there was no duty for the Commonwealth to warn students about the potential for criminal acts’’ by student-gunman Seung-Hui Cho.

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Jurors in Montgomery County Circuit Court ruled last year that the state was negligent in the deaths of Julia Pryde and Erin Peterson, two of the 32 people killed by Cho on the Blacksburg campus. The jury panel awarded the parents of Pryde and Peterson $4 million each, although the amount was later reduced to $100,000 per family.

Harry Pryde, whose daughter Julia was killed in her class on the second floor of Norris Hall on April 16, 2007, said Thursday that the families were ‘‘deeply saddened that the court was so dismissive of assigning responsibility and was so protective of the commonwealth.’’

The lawsuit was about accountability, not money, Pryde said in a phone interview, ‘‘and we still take a good measure of satisfaction that the jury listened to all of the evidence and decided as it did. We don’t feel at all that the Supreme Court can take that away from us.’’

Brian Gottstein, director of communication for Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, said the court’s ruling affirmed the state’s position.

‘‘While words cannot express the tremendous sympathy we have for the families who lost their loved ones in the Virginia Tech shootings of 2007 — including the Prydes and the Petersons — the Virginia Supreme Court has found what we have said all along to be true: The commonwealth and its officials at Virginia Tech were not negligent on April 16, 2007,’’ he said in a statement.

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Virginia Tech president Charles W. Steger praised the attorney general’s office in a written, single-paragraph statement: ‘‘Their attention to detail throughout the case — indeed throughout the lengthy fallout from this wrenching tragedy — and their belief in the university’s employees is gratifying and very much appreciated. I will not forget their support and professionalism. Attorney General Cuccinelli was personally engaged, for which I will be forever grateful.’’

After Cho’s rampage — one of the deadliest mass shootings in US history — most of the victims’ families accepted a settlement that prohibited them from suing the university or the state. The Petersons and Prydes refused, instead pursuing a wrongful-death lawsuit because, they said, they wanted to get to truths they suspected officials were withholding.

Robert Hall, the attorney for the Pryde and Peterson families, was in court when the decision was issued and was unavailable for comment.

The question in the lawsuit was one the families had been asking since 2007: Why hadn’t Virginia Tech officials informed the campus that a gunman might be on the loose after two students were shot in a dorm?

The first campus-wide alert about a ‘‘shooting incident’’ was not issued for more than two hours, and it did not mention the gunman was on the loose.

The Prydes and Petersons maintained that a proper warning would have helped their daughters avoid Cho’s bullets.

The jury agreed, but the state appealed. It argued that the state university was not required, by law, ‘‘to warn of third party criminal acts’’ and that the Montgomery County Circuit Court ‘‘misstated Virginia law’’ in issuing its jury instructions; and that the court also ‘‘erred in finding that there was sufficient evidence regarding causation to raise a jury issue.’’

In the state Supreme Court’s 15-page decision, the justices wrote that ‘‘here simply are not sufficient facts from which this Court could conclude that the duty to protect students against third party criminal acts arose as a matter of law.’’

The high court’s ruling contrasted with the conclusion of the federal government about Virginia Tech’s response. In August 2012, US Education Secretary Arne Duncan determined the university should be fined $27,500 for a violation of a federal law known as the Clery Act.

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