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The recent $8 million jury award to the families of two students killed in the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre illustrates the importance of responding quickly and appropriately to incidents of violence, whether in the workplace or on a school campus.
In the Virginia Tech case, the families argued that the deaths of the shooting victims could have been avoided if school officials had acted more quickly to warn students that the gunman had killed two students in a dorm room earlier that day. According to the school's attorneys, officials did not warn the campus after the first two shootings because they believed these shootings were an isolated incident.
In general terms, the plaintiff in most negligence cases must show that the defendant had a duty to use ordinary care, that it breached that duty, and that this breach caused the plaintiff's injury. A defendant in a negligence action may be held liable if the trier of fact finds that the risk of harm to the injured person was reasonably foreseeable. Liability can be imposed based on the defendant's actions or, as here, inaction or delayed action, where there is a duty to act. The school argued that the gunman's actions were not reasonably foreseeable and that there was no evidence that a warning would have changed what happened that day.
The jury apparently agreed with the families' arguments that the university's delay in sending a campus wide warning e-mail, as well as what plaintiffs contended was a misdirected focus of the initial investigation, resulted in foreseeable injury to the students. The jury returned a negligence verdict awarding each family $4 million. The school immediately filed a motion to reduce the verdict to $100,000 based on a state law that caps jury verdicts.
Employers' Bottom Line
What does this mean for higher education employers? The jury verdict illustrates how closely all actions taken in response to a crisis can be scrutinized after the crisis has passed. Thus, it is important to have a crisis management plan in place and provide training on this plan before an incident of violence occurs.
Ford & Harrison attorneys can assist you in developing a crisis management plan or assessing your current plan. If you have any questions regarding this Legal Alert, please contact the Ford & Harrison attorney with whom you usually work or Kathryn Pascover, email@example.com, a partner in our Memphis office and head of Ford & Harrison's Higher Education Practice Group.