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

Lawsuits likely to target schools, clinics, but they may not succeed.

— -- 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."

As a result, a court magistrate released Cho, ordering outpatient treatment and follow-up. It is not clear whether Cho was ever contacted or participated in such treatment.

"That procedure that took place 16 months ago was handled appropriately by our chief of police, by all of the agencies involved and by the treatment facility," said Chris Flynn, director of the Cook Counseling Center on the Virginia Tech campus. "The judgments that were made at the facility are not our judgments. When they are released back into the community and we are told that they are no longer a danger to themselves or others, we work under discrimination acts -- we cannot discriminate against the mentally ill, nor do we want to."

But some mental health experts argue that liability is always an issue in such cases. "There is always liability when you release someone who goes out and does something bad," says Robert W. Kiesling, the former head of psychiatric services in Fairfax County, Va. "There have been negligent release cases where people go to the ER, get released and commit suicide, and acts of violence. Individual health care practitioners have been sued because they decided not to have someone referred for hospitalization and they go out and do something terrible, because it is ruled that the practitioner did not adhere to community standards."

In that case, Peter Odighizumwa, the Appalachian Law School student who had threatened female students and staff, went on a rampage, roaming the campus with a gun and killing three people, the school's dean, a professor and a student. The family of the student, Angela Dales, and three survivors sued the school, seeking close to $23 million, claiming that the school ignored several warnings about Odighizuwa's propensity for violence. Eventually, the case was settled for $1 million.

But Rodney Leffler, a Virginia lawyer, argues that Virginia Tech's reaction was much more responsible and proactive than Appalachian Law School's. "I'm kind of impressed the school [Virginia Tech] went to the lengths to get him involuntarily committed," says Leffler, who adds that he's defended several health care practitioners whose former patients commit violent acts.

Alfred L. Head was one of those cases. Head was treated at Inova Fairfax Hospital several times and released several days before driving his car through the wall of his family's Reston home, and beating his mother to death with a baseball bat. Head and his father sued the hospital and three psychiatrists who treated him, claiming that his violent act was due to their negligence. Head's doctors and nurses were eventually acquitted of responsibility in the death.

"If you read that case, this [Cho] is right on the money, just that fewer people were killed," says Leffler, who defended Inova Fairfax Hospital in that case. "Everything else was the same, they had him held and he answered the questions right and they had to let him go. … They had the duty under the law to let him go, they had no power to keep him unless he answered those two questions in the affirmative: 'Yes, I'm going to kill myself' or 'Yes, I'm going to harm others.'"