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Wrongful death lawsuits allowed to proceed against Virignia Tech

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Two $10 million wrongful death lawsuits filed by families of Virginia Tech students killed in the 2007 massacre in Blacksburg will move forward, a circuit court judge ruled November 22. On April 16, 2009 — the two-year anniversary of the deadliest shooting on a college campus in U.S. history — lawsuits were filed in Fairfax County Circuit Court on behalf of two families who lost their daughters that day. The plaintiffs said in a statement they hoped to receive accountability for the tragic events of April 16, 2007. The lawsuit, which asks for a judgment of $10 million in compensatory damages, alleges university administrators were "less than candid" about responding to questions put to them by a university review panel that issued a report to former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D).

According to news reports, Judge William Alexander, who sits in Montgomery County Circuit Court in Christiansburg, initially ruled in January the case could proceed against university President Charles Steger and former executive vice president James Hyatt. Since then, attorneys on both sides of the issue have debated whether or not Steger and Hyatt are considered "high-ranking government officials" in their capacities as top-level administrators of a public university funded by the commonwealth. In Virginia, many government officials are immune from civil lawsuits because of a legal doctrine called "sovereign immunity." Sovereign immunity in Virginia holds government employees to a higher legal standard if their actions are performed in the course of their official capacity, often "immunizing" them from such lawsuits. But on Nov. 22, Alexander ruled Steger and Hyatt are not government officials, high-ranking or otherwise, and therefore are not covered by the sovereign immunity doctrine.

"I was able to show that only about 25 percent of Steger’s annual compensation is derived from state funds," said plaintiff’s attorney Robert Hall of Reston. "In 2007 alone, his total compensation was well above $600,000 and only $169,339 of that was awarded to him by the legislature." Hall also said Steger sits on the boards of many private companies that do business with the university, something a government official would not be able to do. "Universities are quickly becoming less and less government dominated and more and more private resource dominated simply because the government hasn’t been very good about coming up with money to run them," Hall said. The case might set a legal precedent, forcing the Virginia Supreme Court to more clearly define who is, and is not, covered by the sovereign immunity doctrine.