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Might Virginia Tech Be Liable?

Two recent articles explore this question. Associated Press writer Larry O'Dell (via the Houston Chronicle) recalls the lawsuit brought by victims and family members after a disturbed student at the Appalachian School of Law murdered three victims and wounded three others. They eventually settled for $1 million. Similar lawsuits against Virginia Tech are likely, O'Dell writes, but could be very difficult to win.

"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."

In an article published on FindLaw,  Brooklyn Law School professor Anthony J. Sebok considers possible legal grounds for holding Virginia Tech liable. He concludes:

"If an investigation reveals negligence by Virginia Tech, and it can plausibly be argued to be gross negligence, then perhaps the wounded victims and the families of the deceased will be able to recover for the damages they actually incurred. But the law -- thanks to the archaic sovereign immunity doctrine -- sets the bar too high. Proof of negligence, even short of gross negligence, should be enough."

It is a conclusion, he says, that is "not very reassuring for the families or the surviving victims," and that "raises important questions about whether we want to insulate the state from accountability in court for its mistakes."

And it is a conclusion that leads David Nieporent at the blog Overlawyered to suggest that crime does pay. The school's potential liability is a question that is academically legitimate to explore, Nieporent says. "But at the same time, the article illustrates that the trial lawyers of the sort Overlawyered complains about every day are not revolutionaries; they're just doing what they've been taught in law school. Namely, find a legal theory under which one can blame third parties."

Sebok, meanwhile, is careful to caution that the shooter, Cho Seung Hui, is the one "most responsible" for the shootings. "No one can or should assume that anyone else bears responsibility for what he did," Sebok says. "Only after a careful investigation can that sort of judgment be made."

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on April 25, 2007 at 06:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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