RICHMOND, Va. (AP) _ Five years before the massacre at Virginia Tech, a deeply disturbed student went on a murderous rampage at the Appalachian School of Law, killing three and wounding three others.
Some victims and family members sued the law school and eventually settled for $1 million. Similar lawsuits are virtually certain after the Virginia Tech shootings, but legal experts say it could be very difficult to win damages.
The gunman in the law school shooting in Grundy, Va. _ graduate student Peter Odighizuwa _ had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
Plaintiffs claimed in their $23 million lawsuit that school officials ignored a pattern of threats and disruptive behavior that should have warned them Odighizuwa _ who had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia _ was dangerous.
Like Odighizuwa, who is serving six life terms, the Virginia Tech gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, had displayed aberrant behavior that some say should have been recognized as warning signs.
Along with the similarities in the two cases, however, there is one significant difference: While the Appalachian School of Law is a private institution, Virginia Tech is a state school and therefore enjoys a level of immunity.
How much immunity is a question that likely will be tested in court.
``When plaintiffs' lawyers get a hold of this, people may be surprised by their creativity,'' said Ashley Taylor, a former deputy attorney general who represented the state's colleges.
The state, its institutions and employees are largely protected from civil lawsuits by ``sovereign immunity'' _ a doctrine rooted in a monarchical tradition that allowed grievances against the king only if he said it was OK.
``We do not expect perfection out of our government,'' said David N. Anthony, chairman of the Virginia Bar Association's civil litigation section. ``Our government can make mistakes. If they do, we can't recover from them unless it falls into a category where they say we can.''
Virginia's government has waived sovereign immunity in a limited fashion through the Tort Claims Act, which permits damages of up to $100,000 for bodily injury caused by the state's negligence.
Anthony said sovereign immunity will make it exceptionally difficult for anyone to successfully sue the state for more than that.
``I don't think you have evidence of intentional misconduct _ no evidence they knew the shooter was wandering around the campus and did nothing,'' he said.
E. Brent Bryson, one of the attorneys who represented the Appalachian School of Law victims, said he has already spoken with some potential plaintiffs.
``They're undecided what they want to do,'' Bryson said. ``They have some loyalty to Virginia Tech. They want to believe Virginia Tech acted appropriately. If it didn't, they want to be compensated for the injuries they received.''
He agreed that sovereign immunity makes the Tech case tougher, but said there may be some ways to attack the doctrine depending on how the investigation of the shootings unfolds.
``Even if you get around sovereign immunity, it's still very difficult because the law in Virginia is not well settled on liability for third-party criminal acts,'' Bryson said. ``Virginia is very conservative on that issue compared to other jurisdictions.''
Richmond attorney Steven D. Benjamin said sovereign immunity does not apply to contract claims, and a lawyer could argue that a contractual relationship between the university and its students and employees carried with it a duty to warn.
If a judge agreed, Benjamin said, the next questions would be: Did the university know about the imminent danger? If so, did the university give adequate warning? If not, was that failure the proximate cause of the deaths and injuries?
``Certainly there is a possibility of liability, depending upon a number of findings by the court,'' Benjamin said.