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Virginia Tech tragedy raises security issues

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By Editors Rick Shapiro & John Cooper

With over 30 dead Virginia Tech students, the entire nation including Virginia residents mourn the loss of innocent lives. As of the day after the massacre in Blacksburg Virginia, it appears that the gunman was himself a Virginia Tech student with serious psychiatric issues. However, what is emerging is a clear consensus among police and security officials that Virginia Tech failed to take prompt action after knowing that two people were dead and the gunman was on the loose. Is this a tragic case of inadequate security measures?

One former New York City police official found fault with Virginia Tech’s response to the first two killings, especially since the gunman was not located and was on the loose. Would 33 people still be alive if Virginia Tech had immediately gone into a lock down, cancelled classes, and told students to not report for classes?. Would a large commercial establishment or large office complex have reacted within the first five or 10 minutes instead of waiting two hours to even issue in e-mail? These are the questions that surviving students at Virginia Tech were posting on the internet and asking reporters.

Two people were killed in the first shootings at a dormitory about 7:15 a.m. on the campus about two hours before the Norris Hall massacre began. The dormitory, West Ambler Johnston Hall, houses 895 students and is located near the drill field and stadium on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Virginia. Virginia Tech is a state operated university in Virginia.

Victims of the shootings were taken to Montgomery Regional Hospital and Lewis-Gale Medical Center, among other locations.

Police associated with Virginia Tech claim that they thought that gunman had fled the area but this seems to be a rather poor excuse for the failure to implement any type of security lockdown or to have canceled classes.

The lone shooter, Cho Seung-Hui,was a 23-year-old senior majoring in English at Virginia Tech. He was a loner, and we’re having difficulty finding information about him,” school spokesman Larry Hincker said. However, other news reports painted a picture of a person obsessed with violence, at least based on his English papers that former acquaintances described.

In lawsuits alleging injuries or death, the general rule is that when a criminal act intervenes to cause the victim’s injury this is not something attributable to a third party-with some big exceptions. For example, if a business has long-standing awareness that the criminal element is loitering or hanging around its premises, and fails to provide security, this can be a basis of liability for a resulting civil injury or death lawsuit, based on the knowledge of the business and a failure to correct a problem or provide security against criminals frequenting the premises.

Inadequate security litigation is not a new legal issue, but generally there must be a negligent or careless failure to act on behalf of the person or party against whom liability for inadequate security is alleged.

Indeed, on this Injuryboard blog, we posted an article about a Virginia Supreme Court decision in 2006, holding a hotel liable for a criminal assault in the hotel parking lot. The Virginia Supreme Court stated:

“It is reasonable for the law to impose upon the innkeeper, and on the common carrier, a duty to take reasonable precautions to protect his guests against injury caused by the criminal conduct on the part of other guests or strangers, if the danger of injury by such conduct is known to the innkeeper or reasonably foreseeable….”

The law applying to a university would seem to be somewhat similar, although public institutions also enjoy some Virginia legal protections not available to private parties.

Our law firm is carefully studying the legal issues surrounding the “inadequate security” allegations of the Virginia Tech tragedy but at this time our hearts go out to the families who lost a son or daughter to such a seemingly senseless tragedy.