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Judge denies immunity claim in Virginia Tech wrongful death lawsuit

A Virginia circuit court judge ruled Monday that a lawsuit by two families whose children were killed in the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting [JURIST news archive] can proceed against school administrators, despite their claims of sovereign immunity. The judge ruled [AP report] that defendants Charles Steger and former executive vice president James Hyatt are not protected by sovereign immunity because of their status as administrators of a state-funded higher education institution. Visiting judge William Alexander found that, though the positions are partially funded by the state, they do not qualify for sovereign immunity protection as high-ranking government officials, echoing a similar ruling [JURIST report] made in January. The lawsuit [JURIST report], seeking $10 million in damages, accuses the administrators of gross negligence for failing to warn students of the shootings immediately after the first shooting at 7:15 AM. It is being brought by families of victims Julia Pryde and Erin Petersen who opted out of an $11 million dollar settlement [JURIST report] to which 24 of the 32 victims' families agreed in June 2008. The trial is set for next September.

The settlement with the other victims' families gave each family $100,000 plus medical expenses and provided for meetings with Virginia Governor Tim Kaine and Virginia Tech administration and police officials. Many of the families in the settlement had considered wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits against the state of Virginia after an independent state panel reported that different school policies could have avoided some of the deaths, but the settlement terms required the families to release their claims. In December 2007, Congress passed by voice vote an act that closes a loophole [JURIST report] that allowed Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho to purchase firearms despite a court order mandating psychiatric treatment. The Virginia Tech shootings left 33 people dead and 25 wounded in the deadliest shooting incident in US history [WP backgrounder].

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