Attorney seeks $4 million for 2 Va. Tech families

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By STEVE SZKOTAK, Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Families awarded $4 million each in a wrongful death lawsuit over Virginia Tech's response to a 2007 massacre are seeking to circumvent a $100,000 cap on claims against the state, according to court filings.

Montgomery County Circuit Court jurors ruled on March 14 that the state was negligent when Virginia Tech officials delayed alerting the Blacksburg campus of the first two shootings by a gunman who ultimately killed 32 and himself. It was the most deadly mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

The jury awarded the families of two slain students $4 million each, but the state asked the trial judge to enforce the $100,000 cap on claims against the state. Jurors were not told of the cap before they began their deliberations in the eight-day trial.

The parents' attorney, Robert T. Hall, is seeking $2 million per family from the state's risk management plan, which covers state workers for damages related to their official actions as state employees, according to a motion filed this week.

The move is an effort to sidestep the cap on damages, which lawyers have said can only be lifted through actions by the governor, attorney general or General Assembly.

Hall is asking the state to provide details on the liability coverage for President Charles W. Steger and Tech Police Chief Wendell Flinchum and the nonprofit Virginia Tech Foundation, which lists assets topping $1 billion.

Attorneys representing the state said the court is bound by law to honor the cap on damages.

Besides, Assistant Attorney General Mike F. Melis argues, the state was the lone defendant in the trial.

"Furthermore," Melis wrote, "the plaintiffs' requests for policies providing liability insurance for Charles Steger and Wendell Flinchum are irrelevant to this issue because neither individual is a defendant against whom this court can enter judgment."

Flinchum and Steger played key roles in the university's response April 16, 2007, when gunman Seung-Hui Cho shot two at a dorm more than 2 1/2 hours before he killed 30 at Norris Hall, a classroom building.

Flinchum told Steger that investigators at the scene of the first shootings believed the two were gunned down by a jealous lover and the gunman, who remained at large, was not a threat to the wider campus.

More than 37,000 students, faculty and workers were not told of the dorm shootings until Cho had chained the doors of Norris Hall and concluded his campus rampage.

Among the dead in Norris were Erin N. Peterson and Julia K. Pryde, whose parents brought the wrongful death lawsuit, arguing their daughters and others might have lived if they were warned of the earlier shootings.

A hearing on the motions, filed this week in Christiansburg, had not been scheduled as of Wednesday.

The lawsuit the Peterson and Pryde families filed was the last pending litigation stemming from the mass shootings. The state is appealing a separate fine handed down by federal education officials, again for the university's slow response to the first killings on campus April 16.

University officials have defended their actions on April 16, stating they were working with the best information they had at the time.

The Petersons and the Prydes were the only eligible families to reject their share of an $11 million dollar settlement in 2008.

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Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap

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