CHRISTIANSBURG, Va. – A lawsuit against Virginia Tech officials filed by the families of two students slain in the 2007 mass shootings at the school can move forward, a judge ruled Monday.
A trial is set to begin in September 2011.
Attorneys for president Charles Steger and former executive vice president James Hyatt argued they were protected by sovereign immunity because their positions were established and funded by the state. But visiting Circuit Court Judge William Alexander said running the university didn't qualify them as high-ranking government officials protected from personal liability.
"I don't see President Steger as helping run the government," Alexander said.
Most of the families of the 32 people slain April 17, 2007, accepted their share of an $11 million state settlement. The families of Julia Pryde and Erin Peterson refused to participate, instead filing a $10 million lawsuit on the second anniversary of the shootings. They said they hoped to reveal the full story of how the shootings were handled.
The lawsuit accuses university officials of gross negligence because they did not immediately warn students of two shootings that occurred in a dormitory at 7:15 a.m. on the day of the shootings. By the time the school sent out an e-mail alerting of a shooting incident two hours later, student gunman Seung-Hui Cho already had chained the doors shut to Norris Hall, where he killed 30 others and himself.
A state panel that investigated the shootings concluded that officials should have sent an alert earlier.
The families claim the two-hour delay in notifying faculty and staff happened because officials put concerns about the school's image above campus safety.
Peterson and Pryde's attorney, Robert Hall, said he was pleased the judge allowed the case to move forward.
"That's what they wanted to avoid the most, and that's what we wanted to happen the most," he said.
However, Steger said he was concerned that the ruling would have a negative impact on higher education in the state. University spokesman Larry Hincker said in a statement that officials were disappointed with the ruling, but said the school believes it can show that appropriate actions were taken the day of the shootings.
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.
Steger's and Hyatt's attorneys argued that public employees should not have to worry about being sued while performing their duties. They said that the men qualified as high-level government officials because Virginia Tech has outreach and extension offices in every county in the state.
"The issue here today is not whether they can be held accountable," said Mike Melis, an assistant attorney general. "The issue here today is whether they can be held legally liable."
Hall argued that only about 25 percent of Steger's more than $600,000 annual compensation comes from state funds. Also, Steger is allowed to serve on the governing boards of companies doing business with the school and its affiliates, something Hall said was inconsistent with being a government official.
Hall also said Steger and other university officials effectively gave up immunity when they persuaded lawmakers several years ago to give universities more autonomy in exchange for less state funding.