Leaving Pryde Behind: Virginia Tech Invokes State Cap To Reduce $8 Million Negligence Award To $200,000

I have previously written about my view of the clear negligence committed by Virginia Tech University in the 2007 campus massacre as well as the gross unfairness created by a state cap on damages for the families of dead students and faculty. I have also criticized the university’s litigation posture and steadfast denial of such negligence. Now a jury has added its collective voice to this criticism — finding Virginia Tech not only negligent but awarding the families of two Virginia Tech students $4 million each in a duty-to-warn case. However, due to the state’s imposition of a cap, these awards are likely to be reduced to a mere $100,000 each for their dead children. For parents like Erin Peterson and Julia Pryde, the cap must be a terrible insult as the calculation of what the state believes their child is worth in the face of lethal negligence by the school.

Virginia Tech has raised record amounts of contributions in the wake of the massacre despite its own responsibility in the the deaths of 33 individuals. That responsibility has been laid bare by this verdict regardless of the reduction under state law.

What should be the source of outrage is the continued use of this cap, which reduces the lives of teachers and students to a rather minor expense — particularly when measured against the millions raised in fund drives by the university.

I have long been a critic of these caps, which have not been adjusted for decades. I have had to help grieving families and friends, including students, look for lawyers in states with such caps. In one case, a student lost his fiancé to a case of clear negligence by a trucking company. However, no lawyer was prepared to go to trial in the case because they could not recover more than $250,000 — less than what it would cost in trial time and costs. The result is that the company avoided a trial and the true costs of the death of this young woman.

It took only four hours for the jury to find Virginia Tech liable.

Source: CNN

27 thoughts on “Leaving Pryde Behind: Virginia Tech Invokes State Cap To Reduce $8 Million Negligence Award To $200,000”

  1. What happened to the revolutionary idea that all men are entitled to the inalienable “right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.”

    Sounds to me that it has been sold off by the Legislature for a measly $100,000.

    Wake up people! For those who believe the trial lawyers can fix this, know that the legislatures don’t give a whit what the trial lawyers think. We are like the canaries in the coal mine. Those who own the gold make the rules.

  2. At $100,000 per dead student, with zero impact on enrollment or funding, why even bother to have a campus police force at all? Campus rapes are prosecuted at a shockingly low rate, and of course the usual thefts are a waste of time to even report.

  3. Jill,

    I disagree. I’m with mespo on this one. (More later, time-permitting.)

  4. Maybe a 12 foot wall around the entire university grounds with airport type security would have prevented this tragedy. -pete

    Exactly what Kroll proposed to one Ivy League school after 9/11. (The school rightly rejected the proposal.)

  5. Maybe a 12 foot wall around the entire university grounds with airport type security would have prevented this tragedy. Or at least double or triple the campus security.Maybe cameras covering every square inch of the campus, not to mention manpower to constantly monitor all these cameras.
    These suggestions are admittedly over the top, but to make my point, what is negligent and what is a reasonable level of safety. we all need to take on some responsibility for ourselves, with the knowledge that we live in a dangerous world, and we are at some level, responsible for our own safety. I am a “coast to coast” truck driver and I was in VA shortly after this tragedy happened. As I passed the exit for VA Tech, I cried. Yes, this tough truck driver had tears running down his cheeks, so I’m not void of emotion and feelings.That said, how do you put a price on a tragedy. The university may not have been negligent. There’s no way to protect everyone from every crazy person out there. I don’t have a problem with some kind of compensation to pay for final expenses. But who pays the costs of a multimillion dollar lawsuit? The taxpayers of VA? The current and future students of VA Tech trying to get a quality education? As tragic as this massacre was, the responsible party was the crazy person with the gun.It’s a shame that this horror turned into a mega million dollar lottery win for the families of these dead students.Life is cruel sometimes and often unfair, but we all need to take more responsibility for our own lives instead of always looking for someone else to blame. This tragedy has been a long time ago and I’m again reminded how fragile and precious life is. My thoughts and prayers are again for the recovery and healing of the families and friends of the students who tragically perished at the start of their hopeful and promising lives.

  6. JIll:

    “My daughter goes to Virginia Tech. She wasn’t a student at the time of this incident…but she was a student there when a Chinese student cut of the head of his girlfriend in the graduate life building. … I don’t think there was a thing VT could do about the shootings. Cho was a student… This is blood money and it’s a shame”


    A jury from Blacksburg, who heard both sides and had no personal stake in the outcome of the case, thought better of VT’s lax view of its responsibilities to its students. Why won’t you?

    I also think your bias is showing in that you don’t wonder why all the incidents you cite in your comment is happening in Hokieland — and nowhere else.

  7. My daughter goes to Virginia Tech. She wasn’t a student at the time of this incident…but she was a student there when a Chinese student cut of the head of his girlfriend in the graduate life building. She was also a student when a man, dressed as a VT student, shot a police officer in the face. She knows what we all know…that none of this violence can be prevented. I don’t think there was a thing VT could do about the shootings. Cho was a student…he fit in with everyone else…he walked passed students on the way to killing other students…you just don’t know. I don’t think anyone should have received money. This is about the assignment of blame and if we are keeping it real…we know that the killers in all of these situations are to blame. This is blood money and it’s a shame.

  8. Bron, I forgot to add that your example of the injured workman is not a good analogy since that sort of incident is handled through the worker’s compensation system, a no-fault program. That system has its own serious problems, but that could take up another thread.

  9. Bron, my point was that adopting arbitrary caps is, in my view at least, an improper interference with the function of a jury. I continue to cling to what I suppose is an increasingly outmoded belief that the role of the jury is a crucial element in the judicial system, and that it is being systematically eroded by legislation and contract. It is the function of lawyers to present the facts and the applicable law. It is the function of the court to protect substantive and procedural due process. It is the function of the jury to determine a just result within that framework. That is how the law is able to live and breathe and develop. It is also how respect for the rule of law is engendered and perpetuated. Arbitrary damages caps and mandatory arbitration clauses run counter to these values.

  10. Mike Appleton:

    Typically when an accident happens there is a large amount of negligence to go around. And sometimes it is the fault of the person injured or killed. And sometimes it is just a fluke accident.

    A worker who had on a harness and fall protection fell off of a bridge and his lanyard was cut by a piece of steel decking that was overhanging the edge just a little bit. He fell to his death. It was a tragic accident. Should that be a claim against the company? Nothing was done wrong, all the safety equipment was in good working order, the company had a good safety record, all certifications were up to date.

    But the company could be sued by a sharp lawyer and made to pay. In cases like this why should companies be held responsible? At some point, if you are working in a dangerous profession, the burden is yours to be safe.

    Certainly VATECH is a different case and I think the $4,000,000 million per death is a reasonable figure depending on the degree of negligence of the university.

  11. Mespo:

    that is disturbing about the school bus coverage. A private company would be required to carry far more than a mere $50,000.

    The caps you mention are quite low. It seems to me if you are going to have a cap it should be in the 2-4 million range as a minimum especially for incidents where loss of life occurs.

    What are the statistics on frivolous suits? Didnt Mississippi lose most of their OB’s to quick buck artists?

  12. mespo has made some excellent points. Sovereign immunity laws seriously restrict recovery here in Florida as well. Well-connected plaintiffs are occasionally able to convince legislators to pass special bills to increase payments, but the fact is that the caps are completely arbitrary limits.

    In response to bron’s comment, I would ask why there should ever be a pre-determined limit on damages in tort cases? We hear nonsense about “greedy” trial lawyers constantly, but the fact is that ordinary people called “jurors” determine damages, and judges already have authority to rein in runaway verdicts. Moreover, every study that has ever been conducted has concluded that jurors are conservative in calculating damages. And although I am not a personal injury lawyer, I have found juries to be quite sensible and reasonable in commercial and business tort cases.

  13. This seems like an opportunity for the trial bar to do something about these arbitrary caps.

  14. Tort reform in the application of caps is just a state sponsored subsidy to business and other institutions when criminal penalties do not apply. This is shameful.

  15. Bron:

    Well loved or not, Tech screwed up here as a jury decided in less time that a round of golf takes to finish. Good people and good institutions make mistakes and they, like their less desorable counterparts, must pay for the damage too.

  16. Bob Hall, who handled these cases for the plaintiffs, is a super lawyer and a better person. He knew going in that his chnaces of getting more than was offered ($100,000.00) was minimal but believed the families had the right to prove that their kids were victims of both Cho’s horrible deed and the university’s negligence. The case was difficult from a causation standpoint as I commented earlier in response to JT’s previous article cited above.

    The judge hearing the case, Hon. William Alexander, has called for briefs on the cap reduction. Maybe he’ll do the right thing and deem them unconstitutional. An appeal will undoubtedly follow. Regardless of what the Virginia Supremes do to the verdict, this issue is already decided against Tech in the court of public opinion — the one that matters.

  17. Virginia is cap crazy. We have a $350,000.00 cap on punitive damages regardless of the case; a med mal recovery cap against all defendants in the aggregate range of $2 Million Dollars regardless of future damages; and a cap under the Virginia Tort Claims Act of $100,000.00. However the most frustrating cap may also be the least known to the public and one that affecst them the most. What most Virginians who send their kids off to school every day don’t know is that there is also an effective cap on recovery for the school bus driver’s negligence in injuring passengers. Virginia law waives sovereign immunity of the school boards in bus accidents but only to the extent of available coverage. Only $50,000.00 worth of coverage is required. Thus Virginia school children and third party drivers also injured have an aggregate cap of $50,000.00 of liability insurance from which to recover since very few school boards buy more. What makes it particularly galling is that the Va. Supreme Court has found that merely driving a school bus with students present is a governmental function requiring discretion thus shielding the bus driver from any liability under the doctrine of sovereign immunity. There may be recovery from the individual policies of the plaintiffs or their parents under their uninsured or under-insured motorist coverage required on Virginia automobile policies, but they are subject to a $50,000 set off or the amount of coverage available. Think about that the next time you go to buy auto insurance.

  18. How do you even put a price on a young life?

    If my son or daughter had died, I would want payback but isnt the person responsible a crazy man and not the university?

    Shouldnt there be some sort of cap unless it is criminal, for example a company knowingly uses poison as an additive to food? If the organization makes a mistake should it be sued out of existence? Although in this case the $4,000,000 million per student doesnt seem unreasonable and if paid as an annuity over 10-20 years would not break the university but would punish it.

    VaTech is a well loved institution in Virginia and does much good for the state. If we really want to blame an organization, lets blame Fairfax County Public schools for disregarding evidence that Cho was a problem and the state of Virginia firearms check system for not properly identifying Cho as a potential threat. There is plenty of blame to be shared by numerous parties in this tragedy.

  19. Virginia ís avoiding its duty to shield the victims. To the benefit of those with great responsibility and great interests—whether commercial or institutional.
    Why are these not regulated in Federal law? NBAL, I guess it is possible for the state to meddle in this area.

    Can we not state that a person should be shielded from negligence to an equal degree in all states? Is this possible?
    I mean, we have inter-state commerce regulation. Why not persons moving from one state to another? Is Medicare equally effected by state laws?

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