INTERVIEW: Judge allows suit against Virginia Tech to move forward

By Ryan Nobles - bio | email

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - A judge ruled that a lawsuit filed against Virginia Tech officials by the families of two students killed in the April 16, 2007, mass shootings at the school can go forward.

The state had argued that the lawsuit should not go forward because university president Charles Steger and vice president James Hyatt are state employees and are therefore exempt from legal action. A judge disagreed.

NBC12 legal analyst Steven Benjamin joined First at Four to discuss this case.

RYAN: This case, the idea of dismissing the case, I should say, has centered around the idea of sovereign immunity, saying that the president and vice president are exempt from the lawsuit because of sovereign immunity.

STEVE: It's a fun phrase to use. What does it mean? It means you can't sue the state of Virginia or Virginia State employees for acts of simple negligence, ordinary negligence. What it does not mean, though Ryan, is that they have protection from gross negligence. Gross negligence, I would define as complete failure to do what is necessary for the safety of, in this case, students. And that's what the issue has remained in this trial, in this case whether the president and former executive vice president were guilty of gross negligence and completely failing to do anything to protect their students. Today, what these two officials were trying to do was get complete dismissal from the lawsuit. They said, look, we shouldn't even be susceptible to claims of complete negligence. We should enjoy what is called absolute immunity. In the theory they advanced was an interesting one. Their theory is that because they, as they said, qualify as high level government officials, just like a governor or a judge or a state legislator, they should have the same absolute immunity that those officials do. As you've said, the judge has ruled no.

RYAN: Why is that? The judge has already made this decision on two other occasions. Why a third time did he need to make this declarative statement?

STEVE: Today the defendants were making this argument in a final effort to persuade the judge. Obviously they were unsuccessful. But they're also doing something that's a very important part of litigation. Knowing probably they weren't going to be successful, it was necessary for them to put on evidence, detailing what his role in the job is, trying to persuade the judge, maybe later an appellate judge, that, in fact, they are the same as a governor or policymaker and should have absolute immunity.

RYAN: So that issue has been settled, and the only question at trial will be weather they were grossly negligent.

STEVE: That has been settled.

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