2 families suing Va. Tech to find out truth

Saturday, April 18, 2009

ROANOKE, Va. -- The parents of two students slain at Virginia Tech said Friday they filed lawsuits because they want someone held accountable for the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

The parents of Erin Peterson and Julia Pryde said they're seeking the truth about officials' actions the morning student gunman Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and himself.

The school has been criticized because it delayed notifying students of the first two killings for more than two hours.

"On April 16, 2007, the administrators let our daughters down in ways we are just now learning," said a statement by Celeste and Grafton Peterson and Harry and Karen Pryde.

The parents sued the state, the school and employees as well as Cho's estate Thursday, the second anniversary of the shootings and the deadline for lawsuits.

They were the only eligible families who didn't accept their share of an $11 million state settlement. Their lawsuits allege gross negligence and seek $10 million.

The families said in the statement issued through their attorney, Robert T. Hall, that they declined the settlement because they didn't have the full story on the handling of the shootings.

"We believe that our suit is necessary to reveal truths that ultimately will benefit all those who have shared in this tragic loss," they said.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine said he was not surprised by the lawsuits, and thought it "remarkable that not more lawsuits have been filed." He declined to comment directly on the lawsuits, as did university officials and the state attorney general's office.

Mark Owczarski, a spokesman for Virginia Tech, said the complaints contain "some rather outlandish statements." He would not be specific.

The families said it appeared that the school delayed warning students of the first two shootings in order to present the information in a way that would not harm the school's image because a fundraising drive was coming up.

After two students were killed in a dormitory about 7:15 a.m., school President Charles Steger convened a meeting with top administrators. By the time an e-mail informed the campus of those shootings, Cho was chaining the doors of a classroom building where he killed 30 more people.

A state panel that investigated the shootings concluded that officials erred in not sending an alert earlier.

But Gerald Massengill, who headed the panel, said Friday, "If the message had gone out and they had locked the school down, who knows if lives would have been saved or not?"

The Petersons and Prydes cited "important inaccuracies" in the state report, but Massengill said he was proud of the account. The only error Massengill was aware of was that an interview with a witness in the first shootings occurred a half-hour or more later than originally thought.

"I think it would be rather naive of us to think our report, based on interviews and memories of the people involved, is entirely accurate," he said.

Defendants have 21 days to respond to the lawsuits, which were filed in Fairfax County Circuit Court. That is where the Petersons and Cho's family live and where Hall has his office, according to Betsy Edwards, a spokeswoman for Hall. The Prydes live in Middletown, N.J.

The state and its institutions are largely protected from civil lawsuits by "sovereign immunity" -- a doctrine rooted in a monarchical tradition that allowed grievances against the king only with his permission.

Virginia's government has waived sovereign immunity in a limited fashion through the Tort Claims Act, which permits damages of up to $100,000 for bodily injury caused by the state's negligence. That is the amount that each of the families of those slain received under the state settlement.

However, Hall contends that state employees who are negligent are not entitled to claim sovereign immunity.

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