Tort Immunity

April 26, 2007

Lawsuits Against Va. Tech Face Hurdles

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – Five years before the massacre at Virginia Tech, a deeply disturbed student went on a murderous rampage at the Appalachian School of Law, killing three and wounding three others.

Some victims and family members sued the law school and eventually settled for $1 million. Similar lawsuits are virtually certain after the Virginia Tech shootings, but legal experts say it could be very difficult to win damages.

The gunman in the law school shooting in Grundy, Va. _ graduate student Peter Odighizuwa _ had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

Plaintiffs claimed in their $23 million lawsuit that school officials ignored a pattern of threats and disruptive behavior that should have warned them Odighizuwa _ who had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia _ was dangerous.

Like Odighizuwa, who is serving six life terms, the Virginia Tech gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, had displayed aberrant behavior that some say should have been recognized as warning signs.

Along with the similarities in the two cases, however, there is one significant difference: While the Appalachian School of Law is a private institution, Virginia Tech is a state school and therefore enjoys a level of immunity.

How much immunity is a question that likely will be tested in court.

“When plaintiffs’ lawyers get a hold of this, people may be surprised by their creativity,” said Ashley Taylor, a former deputy attorney general who represented the state’s colleges.

The state, its institutions and employees are largely protected from civil lawsuits by “sovereign immunity” _ a doctrine rooted in a monarchical tradition that allowed grievances against the king only if he said it was OK.

“We do not expect perfection out of our government,” said David N. Anthony, chairman of the Virginia Bar Association’s civil litigation section. “Our government can make mistakes. If they do, we can’t recover from them unless it falls into a category where they say we can.”

Virginia’s government has waived sovereign immunity in a limited fashion through the Tort Claims Act, which permits damages of up to $100,000 for bodily injury caused by the state’s negligence.

Anthony said sovereign immunity will make it exceptionally difficult for anyone to successfully sue the state for more than that.

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