The Virginia Attorney General’s office and the families of two victims of the April 16 shootings have appealed the same case on seperate grounds to the Virginia Supreme Court.
The state requested an appeal on Oct. 11, shortly after the parents of shooting victims Erin Peterson and Julia Pryde, filed their own separate appeal on a different issue.
Language used in instructions given to jurors was faulty, the state argues. The families argue President Charles Steger should be involved in the case as an individual defendant.
The state is requesting that instructions given to the jury at the time of the case be reviewed, arguing the language used in the jury’s instructions was misleading and inaccurately based on Virginia law.
According to the state's petition, “the circuit court’s instructions misstated Virginia law regarding the existence of a relevant special relationship … the standard that triggers a duty to warn of third party criminal acts.”
According to the commonwealth’s petition, these flawed instructions had an inappropriate effect on the jury's conclusions in the case.
Alternatively, the parents of Peterson and Pryde want the court to reinstate Steger as a defendant in the case. The families pursued this in the past by filing lawsuits against university officials, one of which was Steger. However, the court dismissed those lawsuits.
The families of the two victims are appealing that dismissal.
Their petition states the trial “erroneously dismissed Steger from this action and in endorsements to the trial.”
In March 2012, the families won a civil suit against the University. The jury found the university responsible, saying officials did not adequately warn students of a foreseeable danger. The jury awarded each family $4 million.
However, that award amount was reduced to $100,000 because of the state’s Tort Claims Act, which limits the amount an individual can receive in a civil suit in the state.
If Steger is brought as an individual defendant in the case and charged as accountable, each family has the possibility of being granted more money in that civil suit.
The commonwealth defends Steger.
“Under Virginia law, President Steger was entitled to be dismissed from the suit, and we are confident that the dismissal will be upheld,” said Brian J. Gottstein, director of communication for the office of the Attorney General of Virginia.
Gottstein’s confidence comes from the fact the families have already attempted to sue Steger, but failed, which prevents him from being sued again.
This civil suit is different than a criminal case being held against the university by the Department of Education on the federal level. In that case, the university was fined for violating federal law and failing to issue a timely warning in the midst of the shootings. The school, represented by the state Attorney General's office, is likely to have further litigation in that suit as well.
Thirty-two people were killed April 16, 2007, when Seung-Hui Cho killed two students in West Ambler-Johnston Hall before killing 30 more people in Norris Hall two-and-a-half hours later. Erin Peterson and Julia Pryde were among the 30 killed in Norris. The families of 28 victims settled with the university in 2008 for $100,000.
The Virginia Supreme Court will review both appeals and can decide to either take one, both or decline altogether.
Follow this writer on Twitter @priscialva