(CN) - Police had no way to know the Virginia Tech shooter was a threat to students when they discovered his first two victims, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled, overturning an $8 million jury award.
On April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people in two separate attacks on the campus of Virginia Tech, setting a record for the deadliest shooting incident by a single gunman in U.S. history.
Cho killed his first two victims at approximately 7:15 a.m. in a dormitory neighboring his own.
Police investigating these initial shootings initially suspected the double homicide was the result of a domestic dispute because there were no signs of forced entry and the female victim's boyfriend was a known gun enthusiast.
As such, they refrained from imposing a campus lockdown.
About two hours later, while interrogating the female victim's boyfriend, the police received reports of live shots at a classroom building across campus.
Beginning at 9:45 a.m., Cho stalked the halls of Norris Hall for 10 to 12 minutes, methodically entering classrooms, and shooting anyone he found. He killed five faculty members and 27 students before committing suicide.
All of the victims were shot at least three times each, and all but two were shot in the head. Seventeen others were wounded, and six more were injured when they jumped from second-story windows to escape.
The families of two victims in the second attack, Erin Peterson and Julia Pryde, filed sued Virginia for wrongful death, alleging that a special relationship between the state's employees at Virginia Tech and the victims elicited a duty to warn the students of criminal activity on campus.
A jury found that university employees should have reasonably foreseen that injury could arise from a shooter at-large on campus, and awarded each family $4 million.
But the Virginia Supreme Court overturned the award last week, ruling that, even if there were a special relationship between the state and students, there was no duty for the commonwealth to warn students about the potential for criminal acts by third parties.
"In this case, the commonwealth knew that there had been a shooting in a dormitory in which one student was critically wounded and one was murdered," Justice Cleo Powell wrote for the seven-member court. "The commonwealth also knew that the shooter had not been apprehended. At that time, the commonwealth did not know who the shooter was, as law enforcement was in the early stages of its investigation of the crime." (Emphasis in original.)
Based on the information police had at the time, they believed the homicide was a domestic incident, and the shooter posed no danger to others, the 15-page opinion said.
"Based on the limited information available to the Commonwealth prior to the shootings in Norris Hall, it cannot be said that it was known or reasonably foreseeable that students in Norris Hall would fall victim to criminal harm," Powell wrote. "Thus, as a matter of law, the Commonwealth did not have a duty to protect students against third party criminal acts."
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