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The court will now hear arguments from the plaintiffs and defendants in a wrongful death case from April 16, 2007.
Virginia Tech president Charles Steger
Friday, April 26, 2013
The Supreme Court of Virginia has granted an appeal by the families of two women slain at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, that could result in university President Charles Steger being reinstated as a defendant in two wrongful death claims.
If the court rules that Steger should be reinstated as a defendant, an attorney for the families said the case would likely be retried in Montgomery County Circuit Court.
Last year a Montgomery County jury awarded the families of the late Julia Pryde and Erin Peterson $4 million each on their wrongful death claims, finding that university officials were negligent in failing to warn the campus of a shooter on the loose. The award was later reduced to $100,000 under the Virginia Tort Claims Act, which caps damages against the state.
But Steger was dismissed as an individual defendant on a technicality before the case went to the jury.
After the eight-day trial in March 2011, both the plaintiffs and the defendants filed appeals with the state Supreme Court. A writ panel of three Supreme Court justices granted an appeal by the commonwealth, which asks the court to set aside the jury verdict. The state’s attorneys have argued that Presiding Judge William Alexander erred in a handful of legal rulings during the case.
But the writ panel denied the Pryde and Peterson families’ appeal, which asked the court to reinstate Steger as an individual defendant. Under the court’s rules, the plaintiffs then asked for a rehearing of its appeal by the full court. In an order dated Thursday, the full court granted the plaintiffs’ appeal.
On Friday, plaintiffs’ lawyer Bob Hall said his clients are “relieved that they get to put on the case that they wanted to put on to get Steger reinstated as a defendant.”
Steven Emmert, who also represents the families, wrote in an email that granting the appeal was the right thing to do from a legal perspective.
“This case gives the justices the opportunity to address an important rule that has never been interpreted since it was promulgated in 2006,” Emmert wrote. “That kind of guidance will be valuable to judges and lawyers across Virginia.”
Alexander dismissed Steger as a defendant last January under an arcane legal rule called “res judicata,” which was adopted in 2006 to reduce the number of inactive civil cases in state courts.
The plaintiffs had filed a federal civil rights complaint against Steger in another Virginia court, but after a year had not pursued it. The defense won a petition to dismiss the federal claim, and moved to have the case against Steger dismissed in Montgomery County. Alexander agreed with the defense, and ruled that under res judicata Steger should be dismissed as a defendant.
Emmert argued before a writ panel of three justices in February that res judicata is confusing and that this case gives the justices an opportunity to clarify its meaning for future cases. The panel declined to take the appeal. But the plaintiffs filed for a rehearing by the full court, which was successful through this week’s ruling.
According to the court’s order, the court will hear both parties’ appeals on the same day in Richmond. The high court’s deputy clerk, Lesley Smith, said Friday a date has yet to be set for the hearing.
Two justices, William Mims and Elizabeth McClanahan, have recused themselves from the case. No reasons for that have been given.
Mims was chief deputy attorney general for Virginia when the shootings occurred. McClanahan served as chairwoman of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia in the 1990s, and also served on the board of visitors of the College of William and Mary.
Caroline Gibson, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Attorney General, which represents the state and Tech in the case, wrote in an email Friday that the “Commonwealth and Dr. Steger continue to believe in their legal positions and will present those arguments to the full Court at the appropriate time.”
Pryde and Peterson were two of 30 people killed in Norris Hall on April 16, 2007, just over two hours after the same gunman fatally shot two students in the West Ambler Johnston dormitory.
An email alert to the campus about the dormitory shooting was delayed for revision by a university executive committee until moments before the gunman opened fire in Norris Hall classrooms.
The Pryde and Peterson families declined to join a multi-million-dollar legal settlement with the state and filed suit on the second anniversary of their daughter’s deaths.
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