When the families of deceased children who were victims of the Virginia Tech shooting on April 16, 2007 were offered a cash settlement for their losses, two families chose to reject the offer. The parents of Julia K. Pryde and Erin N. Peterson wanted Virginia Tech and the Commonwealth of Virginia to admit that their failure to warn students of the West Ambler Johnston Hall shootings that morning resulted in the deaths of their daughters. Both families decided to pursue a wrongful death lawsuit against the Commonwealth of Virginia and Virginia Tech for the deaths of their daughters and the refusal of Virginia Tech to admit that they were responsible for the loss of their cherished children.
The lawsuit was tried before a jury in Christiansburg, Virginia in early March of this year and, on March 14, 2012, Robert T. Hall and Michael A. Kernbach were able to secure a successful verdict on behalf of the Pryde and Peterson families. Co-counsel Michael A. Kernbach, a Virginia personal injury lawyer with more than 25 years of experience in this legal arena, revealed a number of interesting facts regarding the events that occurred during the trial which he feels should have been more widely shared with the public. Mr. Kernbach revealed that the location where the press sat in the Christiansburg courthouse put them at a disadvantage, making it difficult for members of the press and public to see the body language and facial expressions of the various witnesses on the stand and that deprived the public and attending families of the deceased students of the opportunity to fully appreciate the verdict which was returned by the jury on that date.
Mr. Kernbach says Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger was “an evasive witness with atrocious body language” which demonstrated to the jury the inconsistency of his spoken explanation of the events of that day. When being questioned by attorney Robert Hall regarding whether the university truly had a person of interest in custody at 7:30 am, Steger repeatedly dodged responding to that question until Judge William Alexander ordered him to do so. It was only then that Steger admitted, for the very first time, that he and university officials had knowingly lied to the public that evening regarding the events that occurred that fateful morning. He admitted that no person of interest was in custody at 7:30 am, an “untruth” which had been perpetuated since the date of the shooting until the day he made that confession in court.
Mr. Kernbach notes that because of this lie, “the law enforcement officers on the scene never had any idea who shot the persons in Ambler Johnson and failed to press the issue with the policy group who were busy trying to contain the information. All they had were ‘thirteen bloody footprints’ and a shooter on the loose.” In fact, no person of interest was in custody until 9:25 a.m., two hours and several deaths later.
One surprise attorneys Hall and Kernbach were not expecting was when Dr. Ed Spencer, who became Vice President for Student Affairs before his retirement early this year, said that he had received a call shortly before 7:30 am — approximately 15 minutes after Emily Hilscher and Ryan Clark were shot — from a member of the housekeeping staff informing Spencer that the RA in West Ambler Johnson room 4042 (Ryan Clark) had been murdered. This fact was not known before the trial began, and Spencer’s admission that the university administration knew as early as 7:30 am that the West Ambler Johnson shooting was a criminal act, not simply an instance of domestic violence, was a significant moment for the plaintiffs’ case, courtesy of a defense witness.
Another moment of the trial that Mr. Kernbach thought deserved additional attention involved Gerald Massengill, the former Virginia State Police Superintendent and the chairperson of the Governors Panel assembled to investigate the shootings. Massengill testified on behalf of the plaintiffs regarding the timeline based on the panel’s initial findings, but the defense’s witnesses all claimed that Massengill’s account was false. Massengill’s statements were proved to be true during the course of the trial, and Mr. Kernbach expressed his disappointment in the defense’s effort to discredit one of the “most respected and honest official[s] in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
Upon the conclusion of the case, the jury agreed that Julia Pryde and Erin Peterson tragically lost their lives on April 16, 2007 as a result of Virginia Tech’s failure to warn those on campus of the deaths that occurred earlier at West Ambler Johnson. Kernbach pointed out that, if the university administration had acted quickly and competently by sending out a notice via email to all of the students telling them a gunman was at large, it would have been very likely that at least one person would have stayed in their dorm instead of going to class. Had that had occurred, this lawsuit probably never would have been filed.
When referring to the present employment of certain Virginia Tech administration officials, Kernbach said “If you work at McDonalds and you work the cash register and come up $10 short at the end of the night, you get fired. If you work at Virginia Tech and are responsible for the deaths of 32 students, you get to keep your job.”