Wrongful Death Suits in Virginia Tech Shootings Successful: School Found Negligent Due to Premises Liability

March 19, 2012

Five years after a campus shooting spree left 33 dead and numerous injured, a jury has finally weighed in on a negligence suit filed by the parents of two of the deceased. This week jurors sided with the families, finding that Virginia Tech was negligent when it delayed warning students and faculty that a shooter was on campus. Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that the events that ensued were reasonably foreseeable. Adequate warnings just may have prevented the injuries that ensued shortly after shooter Seung-Hui Cho barred the doors of Norris Hall and commenced with the remainder of his plan, which included killing himself. The family elected to file suit after rejecting their portion of a 2008 $11 billion settlement, choosing instead to pursue justice in memory of the two young girls' who lost their lives, even though doing so meant they'd probably receive less money. (Washington Post)

Universities and premises liability is an ever-developing area of personal injury law. Similar to the case at hand, courts have increasingly held colleges liable for failing to exercise reasonable care in preventing invitees from being harmed by third parties. In assessing such cases, courts often examine several factors including whether similar attacks had taken place before and what security measures were put in place to protect those on campus from danger. Personal injury attorneys know adverse rulings usually result when the court finds that the school took inadequate safety measures.

So what, exactly, does the term "premises liability" mean? Legally, premises liability claims may be activated when a person in injured on property owned and/or maintained by another. That owner may potentially be held liable for that injury if a court finds that the injury resulted because of a dangerous condition on the property. There are some restrictions, however. The owner's potential degree of liability varies depending upon whether the injured party is an invitee or licensee. They owe an even lesser degree of care to people who are deemed to be trespassers. Luckily for most potential plaintiffs, though, the duty of care extends to owners of commercial properties, private residences and a plethora of other properties, including parking lots and even vacant lots.

But what about those other terms - "licensee" and "invitee"? '"An invitee is someone whom a landowner, by express or implied invitation, induces or leads to come upon his premises for any lawful purpose." The purpose must also be mutually beneficial: "If the relationship is one of mutual interest to the parties, the injured party is an invitee of the owner."' Clark Atlanta University, Inc. v. Williams, 654 S.E.2d 403. Georgia law, specifically OCGA § 51-3-1, states that a landowner must exercise ordinary care in keeping its premises and approaches safe for invitees. "Where an owner or occupier of land...induces or leads others to come upon his premises for any lawful purpose, he is liable in damages to such persons for injuries caused by his failure to exercise ordinary care in keeping the premises and approaches safe." O.C.G.A. § 51-3-1.

Under O.C.G.A. § 51-3-2, a licensee is a person who: (1) Is neither a customer, a servant, nor a trespasser; (2) Does not stand in any contractual relation with the owner of the premises; and (3) Is permitted, expressly or impliedly, to go on the premises merely for his own interests, convenience, or gratification. O.C.G.A. § 51-3-2(a).

The Virginia Tech jury was probably instructed to consider similar definitions when arriving at their decision. It's just further proof that colleges and universities must be more mindful about how they handle emergency situations. Some kind of security measures must be in place to bastion them against similar negligence suits. Otherwise, failure to adequately protect invitees and licensees with the requisite degree of care can lead to injury and the wrongful death suits that often follow.

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