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Virginia Tech Lawsuit: State Wants Verdict Set Aside

Virginiatech

STEVE SZKOTAK   06/20/12 04:22 PM ET  AP

RICHMOND, Va. — A judge on Wednesday upheld a jury's negligence finding against the state in the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre but sharply reduced damages to two families who said their daughters could have survived if the university alerted the campus earlier.

Franklin County Circuit Judge William Alexander II set the jury's award at $100,000 for each family, the highest amount allowed under a cap on damages against the state. A jury had initially awarded $4 million to each family after an eight-day trial of the lawsuit in March.

The court hearing in Rocky Mount will not end the litigation concerning the deadliest shooting rampage in modern U.S. history. The attorney general's office said it would likely take its appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court, while an attorney for the families said he would press his negligence claim against Virginia Tech President Charles Steger, also with the Supreme Court.

Steger was among the original defendants in the lawsuit, but only the state was taken to court.

A jury in Montgomery County Circuit Court concluded that Tech delayed warning students of a gunman's initial two shootings on the Blacksburg campus in April of 2007. Seung-Hui Cho later went on to kill 30 more students and faculty before killing himself.

The parents of Erin N. Peterson and Julia K. Pryde said their daughters might be alive if campus leaders hadn't waited 2 1/2 hours after the first shootings to alert the campus.

Robert T. Hall, an attorney for the families, said he wants to hold Steger accountable.

"He's the guy who made the decision not to warn the campus. He didn't," Hall said after Wednesday's hearing.

The state said while it was pleased the damages were reduced, it continued to argue that Virginia Tech leaders had no "duty" to warn the campus of the first two shootings, among other points of their appeal.

"We continue to maintain that the court has misapplied Virginia law in its finding that the commonwealth or its employees could be liable under the facts of the case," Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli said in a statement. "Because of that, we are reviewing the matter and are likely to pursue an appeal in the Virginia Supreme Court."

During the trial, Steger and other university officials testified that police investigators had concluded that the two shootings in a dorm had all the signs of targeted domestic violence, and not the work of someone intent on mass slaughter. They delayed fully informing the campus of the shootings even though the gunman remained unaccounted for.

A full alert informing the campus of the first shootings wasn't released until Cho had chained the doors of Norris Hall and completed his killing spree.

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

"While this isn't about the money, the clients would certainly like to recover back some of the expenses they've incurred in bringing the litigation," he said.

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

Both families were braced for the reduction in damages, Hall said, and still grateful for the jury's findings.

"They're still thankful that the jury listened to the evidence and reached a conclusion that they thought most reasonable minds would – that there should have been a warning," he said.

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

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Filed by Rebecca Harrington  |