Who's Legally Responsible? Lawsuits Are Certain but Liability Unclear

A student develops a reputation for harassing female students and frightening his professors at his college campus in Virginia. Several concerned students reported the student, Peter Odighizuma, to administrators at Appalachian Law School, but no action was taken. One day he showed up with a gun and shot and killed people.

In another case, 23-year-old Alfred L. Head, a mentally disturbed man, was referred to a mental health clinic in Virginia for evaluation and then released. Days later, he committed a horrific act of violence.

Both incidents happened years before Monday's shooting rampage at Virginia Tech.

These tragedies bear striking similarities to the case of the loner named Seung-hui Cho, who shot and killed 32 people before turning the gun on himself this week. And they both triggered lawsuits, one filed against the law school that had ignored warnings about the student, and the other against several psychiatrists and a hospital that had released the student back into society.

The healing has barely begun on the Virginia Tech campus, and many lawyers predict that similar lawsuits will soon be filed by some of the victims' families. But they're divided on whether these cases will succeed if they go before a jury.

How the courts ultimately determine legal liability for the shooting depends greatly on Virginia's laws dealing with the mentally ill, and on the exact role played by mental health providers and college administrators who came into contact with Cho.

"There is no doubt in my mind that there will be claims arising out of it," says Ben Glass, a personal injury lawyer whose family knows some of those students injured in Monday's massacre. One of the key issues is whether the violence was foreseeable, he says, adding.that Monday's massacre bears some similarity to a 2002 incident at Appalachian Law School.

The issue of liability will ultimately depend on who knew what about the killer's mental state, and when they knew it. Many of those facts are still unknown. Potential lawsuits would likely target the university's administration, and maybe the mental health practitioners who evaluated Cho, according to these lawyers.

Virginia lawyer Peter D. Greenspun argues it will be difficult for the families of Cho's victims to succeed in suing the school or the mental health practitioners involved.

"There is very limited liability in Virginia," says Greenspun. "Sometimes you can go after individual people -- if it was reported to a campus police chief, then you bring an action against him -- but it may be that it was just a terrible set of circumstances. Everyone sort of did something, but the right buttons weren't pushed."

Several times, Cho's English professors warned the university's administration about his violent frame of mind, and several students had notified campus police about Cho's suicidal thoughts and his propensity for stalking female students.

The police brought Cho to a mental health center in December 2005, where social worker Kathy Godbey determined that he represented a danger to himself or others, and that he could be put in temporary custody. After another evaluation, psychologist Roy Crouse concluded that Cho was "mentally ill but did not present an imminent danger to himself or others, and did not require involuntary hospitalization."

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