After the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (“Virginia Tech”), the estates of two victims filed wrongful death suits against the Commonwealth. The administrators of the estates alleged that the Commonwealth had a special relationship with its Virginia Tech students, which created an obligation for the Commonwealth to warn students of the threat of a dangerous shooter on campus.
A duty to warn or protect someone from the criminal acts of a third party exists in a special relationship where the danger of such acts were known or reasonably foreseeable.
On the morning of April 16, 2007, police at Virginia Tech discovered two gunshot victims in one of the campus’s dormitories. The police informed the President of Virginia Tech that two students had been shot, the shootings appeared targeted and likely domestic in nature, and that the shooter had likely left campus. An email was sent to the student body informing them of the shooting that morning. Approximately thirty minutes after the email was sent, a second mass shooting began on another part of campus. The police identified the shooter and connected DNA evidence and the murder weapon with the earlier shooting. The administrators of the estates of Erin Peterson and Julia Pryde, two of the murder victims from the second shooting, filed wrongful death suits against the shooter’s estate, the Commonwealth, and various Virginia Tech officials. After the consolidation of cases and several motions, the Commonwealth was left as the sole defendant. The Commonwealth argued: (1) it did not have a special relationship with Peterson and Pryde, and (2) even assuming, arguendo, that there was a special relationship, there was no duty to warn of third party criminal acts. The circuit court found that a special relationship did exist and the Commonwealth failed to warn the students of a shooter on campus. The Commonwealth appealed.
Whether there was a duty for the Commonwealth to warn students of the potential for third party criminal acts?
No, the Commonwealth did not have a duty to protect students against third party criminal acts. It was not foreseeable at the time that a second shooting would occur. The judgment of the circuit court is reversed.
Generally, a person does not have a duty to warn or protect someone from the criminal acts of a third person. There are some special relationships, however, in which such a duty exists where the danger of third party criminal acts “is known or reasonably foreseeable” or there is “an imminent probability of injury.” Here, the court assumes, arguendo, that a special relationship exists between the Commonwealth and the Virginia Tech students. The Commonwealth knew that there had been a shooting in a dormitory and that the shooter had not been apprehended, but was believed to have fled the area. However, the Commonwealth had reason to believe that the shooting was a domestic incident and that the shooter may have been the boyfriend of one of the two victims. Therefore, it cannot be said that it was known or reasonably foreseeable that a second shooting would occur. The Commonwealth did not have a duty to protect the students against third party criminal acts. The holding of the lower court is reversed and a final judgment will be entered in favor of the Commonwealth.