Parents seek to sue VaTech chief for '07 massacre

STEVE SZKOTAK, Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. -- The parents of two Virginia Tech students who successfully sued the state for the deaths of their daughters in a 2007 campus massacre now want to hold the university's president accountable for failing to alert students and faculty of the first shootings on campus.

Attorneys for the parents are asking the state Supreme Court to overturn a lower court's ruling that dismissed President Charles W. Steger from their wrongful death lawsuit.

A jury in March found the state negligent in the deaths of Erin N. Peterson and Julia K. Pryde and awarded their families $4 million each. A judge in June upheld the negligence finding but reduced the jury's award to $100,000 for each family, the highest amount allowed under a cap on damages against the state.

The women were among 32 faculty and students killed on April 16, 2007, on Tech's Blacksburg campus, the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Student gunman Seung-Hui Cho killed himself after the slaughter.

While the actions that morning of Steger, campus police and other university leaders were put under the microscope in a courtroom, the president and other officials were dismissed from the case before trial, leaving the state as the lone defendant. Attorneys for the parents argued successfully that Steger and other university officials waited too long after the first two students were shot in a dormitory to alert the campus of the violence. The gunman was still at large.

In his appeal, attorney Robert T. Hall cites a policy adopted by Tech's Board of Visitors that recognizes the school's responsibility to provide a safe campus for its students.

"The policy required university relations and the university police to make the campus community aware of crimes ... in a timely fashion and in such a way as to aid in the prevention of similar occurrences," Hall wrote in the appeal, filed late Wednesday and provided to The Associated Press.

During the trial, Steger and other university officials testified that police investigators had concluded that the first shootings had all the signs of targeted domestic violence, and not the work of someone intent on mass killing. They delayed fully informing the campus of the shootings even though the gunman remained unaccounted for and they pursued a lead that was fruitless.

Steger said he heeded the advice of police investigators at the scene.

A full alert informing the campus of the first shootings wasn't released until 2 1/2 hours later as Cho concluded his killing spree at Norris Hall, chaining the doors of the classroom building to ensure students and faculty could not flee and killing 30. Peterson and Pryde were among the dead.

While a Tech spokesman said the university had not seen the appeal, he said "university leaders acted appropriately in the events leading up to, during, and after the tragic events of April 16, 2007."

"An unthinkable, horrible crime occurred that day by the hands of Seung-Hui Cho," spokesman Mark Owczarski said in a statement Thursday. "The university community has shown uncommon strength during a challenging and painful period that has united alumni, students, faculty and staff more tightly than ever. We are resolved to learn from the tragedy. We remember the lives lost. We honor them and always will."

Besides accountability, taking Steger to trial would also increase the prospect of larger damages for the Petersons and Prydes, perhaps up to $2 million from the state's risk management plan.

The Petersons and the Prydes were the only eligible families to reject their share of an $11 million settlement in 2008.


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