The nation has not forgotten the shocking massacre in 2007 on the campus of Virginia Tech University. Recently, the university was cleared of any liability for the wrongful deaths of 32 student and staff slain on campus that day.
The claim was based on failure to warn the decedents of the imminent danger posed by the shooter. Although escalating to the state’s Supreme Court, the plaintiffs were unable to persuade the higher court that a special relationship existed between at least two of those killed.
That duty to protect and warn would be heightened, depending on the relationship between the university and the visitor’s purpose on campus. Here, the claimants proposed that the status of “business invitee” should have increased the level of duty owed by the university to the slain students. While the lower trial court allowed the jury to weigh evidence in light of a special relationship that heightened the duty, the Supreme Court ruled, “even if there was a special relationship between the Commonwealth and students of Virginia Tech … there was no duty for the Commonwealth to warn students about the potential for criminal acts by third parties.”
Aside from the legal victory for the university and subsequent loss for the family suing, what kind of legal duties do schools owe to students?
Broadly speaking, the duty to warn depends on the legal status of the visitor. If the person on the property is a trespasser, the duty to warn of known dangers only extends to deadly conditions known to the property owner (such as a broken stairwell, for example). The duty to warn people on the premises who are invited there for a limited purpose (such as a firefighter or EMT personnel) are called “invitees” and must be warned of hazards known to the property owner through a reasonable search.
The highest duty is owed to the “licensee” who must be warned of all known hazards (whether deadly or not).
In the case of the VA Tech massacre, it appears the court agreed that the students were in fact licensees, but that the knowledge of a third-party was not a “known hazard” as defined within the duty to warn.
Although this tragedy increased security on many campuses across the country, a wrongful death claim against a university or school is still not impossible to present. Contact a wrongful death attorney for more information on the standards of care owed by a school to its students.