Judge OKs $11M settlement in Va Tech shootings

Families of most of the victims say they will avoid a court battle over whether anyone but the gunman was to blame.

virginia shooter 298.88  (photo credit: AP)
virginia shooter 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
A judge on Tuesday approved an $11 million state settlement with families of most of the victims in last year's Virginia Tech slayings that will avoid a court battle over whether anyone but the gunman was to blame. Families of 24 victims - out of 32 killed by Seung-Hui Cho - will be compensated under the settlement approved by Circuit Court Judge Theodore J. Markow. Four families agreed to the settlement, but were not prepared to go before the judge Tuesday. Four other families did not participate: Two have filed notices of lawsuits, and two did not file claims. The settlement also covers 18 people injured, but their cases did not require court approval. "The amount the families are receiving does nothing to offset or reduce the pain that they will forever suffer," said Douglas Fierberg, an attorney representing many of the families. Peter Grenier, another family attorney, called the settlement "the most acceptable and most reasonable outcome we could expect" considering Virginia's $100,000 limit on liability in such cases. Grenier praised the state for giving victims' attorneys unfettered access to a wide array of investigative reports and other documents related to the shootings. Some showed critical failures on behalf of the university, he said. Cho killed two students in a dormitory on April 16, 2007, then more than two hours later killed 25 students and five faculty members in a classroom building before taking his own life. Another two dozen were injured. University officials have been criticized for the delay in informing students and employees about the first shootings, which police initially thought were an act of domestic violence. Attorneys disclosed e-mails a university employee sent her family at 9:25 a.m. saying there was an active shooter on campus and that her building was locked down. The e-mail was sent one minute before students and faculty were alerted there had been a "shooting incident" at the dormitory. The campus was not locked down. "What's unconscionable is that they protected their own, and did not protect our children," said Joe Samaha, whose daughter Reema was killed. The family attorneys Tuesday criticized what they called the "watered-down" warning from the university. They received from the university a handwritten draft of a warning by school officials that included information that one student was dead and another was being treated at a hospital. The more detailed draft warning probably would have persuaded more students and faculty to stay put, they said. "We believe this discredits police and university officials," Grenier said. A phone message left for a Virginia Tech spokeswoman late Tuesday was not immediately returned. By accepting the proposal, family members gave up the right to sue the state government, the university, the local governments serving Virginia Tech and the community services board that provides mental-health services in the area. "We are professionals and we represent the commonwealth's interests to the best of our abilities," said Chief Deputy Attorney General William C. Mims. "But first we are mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, neighbors and friends. We cannot possibly imagine the losses they've suffered." Holly Sherman, whose daughter Leslie was killed, said in an e-mail that she was relieved "that this is moving along and, in a large way, ending." But Roger O'Dell, whose son Derek was injured, thought the settlement was inadequate. "Morally speaking, the nature of the crime and the magnitude of its consequences call for much more," he said in an e-mail. Under the settlement, seriously injured victims will have health care needs covered for life. Representatives of each of those killed will receive $100,000. Funds also were set aside for the injured, with individuals eligible to receive up to $100,000 apiece. Families of those killed can seek additional money from a $1.9 million hardship fund, and more money was set aside for attorneys' fees and a fund for charities. The settlement also will give the injured and victims' families a chance to meet with the governor and university officials several times to discuss the mass shootings and changes on campus since then. Last October, the families and surviving victims received payments ranging from $11,500 to $208,000 from the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund, set up in the days after the shootings to handle donations that poured into the school. That fund will remain open for contributions to scholarships for five years.