The jury awarded each family $4 million in damages, but state law caps the damages the state must pay at $100,000 per suit in this type of case.
But the families insisted the case was never about money and that they still hold fond feelings for Tech.
“My daughter loved Virginia Tech so much. She really, really loved that school,” Celeste Peterson said. “It wasn’t about the school at all. It was about truth. We wanted accountability, and that’s what we got. We were sorry it had to be forced.”
The families indicated they simply wanted their daughters to have a chance to make an informed choice for their own safety that morning.
“That warning should have gone out,” Karen Pryde said. “There was no reason it didn’t go out.”
Yesterday’s proceedings went quickly, in stark contrast to Tuesday’s strung-out legal negotiations.
The jury’s instructions — which lay out the issues of the case and what the jury must find to side with the plaintiffs — were a major point of contention. Tuesday was consumed by private meetings of the opposing legal teams in the judge’s chambers spent crafting the jury’s guidelines.
One phrase played a major role in the closing arguments — and drew a standing objection from the attorneys defending Tech — after the instructions were decided upon. The instructions stipulated that not sending an alert to the campus community would be considered negligent if a Tech employee who had the authority to issue such an alert could have or should have “reasonably foreseen” a risk to students’ safety.
State attorneys representing the university voiced their objection to the phrase repeatedly for the record Tuesday evening — a point they could use to appeal the case. They argued the standard in Virginia only requires an alert if there is an “imminent probability” of a third-party committing a crime against a student.
Robert Hall, one of the attorneys representing the victims’ families, said he argued for the phrase by insisting that students have a special relationship to their universities, while the defense argued that concept does not exist in Virginia.
Hall told the Collegiate Times he provided the judge with readings about the concept, which is recognized in many states. The special relationship concept, which Judge William Alexander included in the instructions, means universities have a duty to issue warnings in less urgent circumstances than a different type of land owner would be expected to give in a similar situation where a third-party could commit a crime.
The words “foreseeable risk” drove yesterday’s closing arguments, with Hall arguing for the plaintiffs that the university’s theory did not mean all risk was eliminated, while Peter Messitt argued for the university that Tech officials were acting reasonably based on the information available to them.
Hall spoke first, emphasizing that students likely expected a warning if there was a risk of danger on campus because of events that occurred in the days and months leading up to April 16. When convict William Morva killed two people during an August 2006 prison escape, he was sighted near the Tech campus and a warning was sent. Days before April 16, two bomb threats led to campus lockdowns.
A gunman who had been on campus and was unidentified, Hall argued, was a similarly dangerous threat.