I will begin by stating my office is entirely Hokies (but for me)….. and on this day last year, I witnessed my close friends and colleagues experience a terrible loss. No one in our community remains untouched by this tragedy, but as we specialize in wrongful death law suits, we have a very unique perspective on the Virginia Tech settlements with the Commonwealth of Virginia.
To begin, our office agreed on April 17, 2007, we would not take cases against the University. (We couldn’t agree to this on the 16th because we were in a jury trial). Within weeks, we received calls from across the East Coast from referral attorneys and families, asking if we would be interested in filing suit.
Why did we agree not to take these cases? Many reasons, the first of which is totally personal – no one here wanted to place blame on their alma mater. The second reason, we know sovereign immunity in Virginia is alive and well making such cases very difficult, and likely not “profitable” for anyone involved (sovereign immunity is that legal doctrine wherein a state or local agency such as fire department, policeman, university can only be held liable when their actions are grossly negligent – or so bad as to shock the conscious). Was the shooter grossly negligent – YES, of course, more so – his acts were intentional, but in order to successfully sue Virginia Tech, Blacksburg Police etc, you would have to prove that their actions lacked care and concern as well.
This is a very difficult burden of proof when putting on a case – then you have statutory limit on recovery. So had we taken a case for a family who has lost a loved one you are looking at the following: 1 -2 years in litigation; Our office taking 40% of the total recovery; hiring experts to the tune of $10,000-$20,000 to claim the School should have done more. Then you are asking a local jury, also traumatized by the events, to award parents money. Now many jurors would think “We are so sorry for your loss, but money won’t bring your child back, neither will this law suit, please try to begin the healing process.” We have also found the head on a platter type cases cause families great emotional distress as they are forced to re-live the events on a daily basis, under oath in depositions and at trial – for years. We of course, respect and honor the legal right to file suit against the school and know that for many families, it is not about the money, but accountability. I am confident however, every person at Va Tech will not forget a minute of that day and no lawsuit is needed to hold them accountable.
Now there are some pretty well known legal scholars that disagree with our approach to these cases, and have expressed disappointment in both the offers from the Commonwealth, and family willingness to accept, but I was encouraged to see so many families accept the state settlement. For those who did not, they will be filing Notice by today – or their case will be barred from Virginia Court system. I have no doubt there are a few reporters waiting to see if the City, or the School receives written Notice today. Certainly, it is a complicated legal situation. More importantly, it is an amazing tragedy and our hearts, and prayers are with all Hokies today.