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Judge may reduce jury awards in Va. Tech case

By Tonia Moxley

ROCKY MOUNT

After weeks of dueling motions, Judge William Alexander is expected next week to reduce multimillion-dollar jury awards brought against the state for Virginia Tech's handling of the April 16, 2007, shootings.

At a telephonic hearing held Monday, Alexander asked plaintiffs' attorney Bob Hall to prepare an order reducing the awards assessed by a Montgomery County Circuit Court jury from $4 million per plaintiff to the $100,000 each allowed under state law. Alexander is expected to sign the order reducing the awards sometime next week.

The case will not conclude at that point, though.

On Monday, the judge also set a hearing for 11 a.m. on June 22 in Rocky Mount to consider a defense motion to set aside the jury's verdict entirely.

In court papers, the defense has argued that Alexander ruled in error several times during the trial, including on instructions the judge gave to the jury in which he stated that university officials owed a duty to the students to warn them of danger.

The defense has argued repeatedly that state law does not recognize such a "special relationship" between university administrators and students.

After an eight-day trial, on March 14 a Montgomery County Circuit Court jury awarded $4 million each to families of the late Julia Pryde and Erin Peterson, who were fatally shot in Norris Hall on April 16 by shooter Seung-Hui Cho. Less than three hours before, Cho had gunned down two other students in a dormitory. On the advice of police, university officials kept classes in session and delayed an explicit notice of the first two killings.

Hall had previously received court permission to seek information on any liability coverage held by or for the state, Virginia Tech, university President Charles Steger or Tech Police Chief Wendell Flinchum that might pay part or all of the awards.

According to state law, the plaintiffs are entitled to the "higher of $100,000 or the amount of any liability policy maintained to insure against such negligence."

Tech is required by the state to invest in a risk management plan similar to insurance that may pay up to $2 million per occurrence for liability, Hall had argued.

But attorneys for the commonwealth have countered that the risk management plan is not liability insurance, and may not be used for payouts in this case.

"We are aware of no policies of insurance that insure the commonwealth against liability in this action," Deputy Attorney General Wes Russell told the judge Monday. "It strikes me that we're just running around in circles for no reason, except this is about the money."

Hall did not immediately respond to a request for comment.  

Posted to: Education News Virginia Tech Virginia

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