The mass murders committed on the campus of Virginia Tech in 2007 led to wrongful death claims on behalf of some of the victims against multiple defendants, including the Commonwealth of Virginia. Initially the perpetrator shot and killed two individuals in a dormitory and fled that scene. It was not until a little over two hours later, as police were investigating the initial murders and college officials were meeting to determine their responses, that the killer reappeared in another college classroom building and committed the rest of his crimes. About 20 minutes before those later attacks, the University had sent out a campus-wide "blast email" about the first "shooting incident" and the police investigation, and advising students to be alert for anything suspicious. The plaintiffs' theory of recovery was that the defendants owed a duty to the victims, which they had breached by not doing more, sooner, to warn students about the possibility of a shooter on campus. A jury returned a multimillion dollar verdict for the plaintiffs (reduced to $100,000 by the trial court because of a damages cap in Virginia's Tort Claims Act).
The Supreme Court of Virginia reversed the judgment for the plaintiffs. Commonwealth v. Peterson, 286 Va. 349, 749 S.E.2d 307 (2013). In Virginia, as in most jurisdictions, as a general rule a person does not have a duty to warn or protect another from the criminal acts of a third person, especially when the third person commits an assault or physical attack, because such acts cannot reasonably be foreseen. A narrow exception to this principle applies if the plaintiff establishes that there is a "special relationship," either between the plaintiff and the defendant or between the third-party criminal actor and the defendant. Examples include common carriers and their passengers, innkeepers and their guests, and employers and their employees. But, as the court in Peterson noted, these exceptions are very fact-specific, and are not conducive to drawing bright-line rules for all cases.
The absence of such a special relationship often marks the quick end of claims based on a third party's criminal conduct. In Peterson, however, in a sense the plaintiffs crossed that first threshold in that the court was willing to assume, without deciding, that a special relationship existed between the university officials and the slain students. Even so, the court reversed the verdict for the plaintiffs, because the facts taken as a whole did not give rise to a duty to warn the students of the shooter on campus. It was not known, nor reasonably foreseeable, that students faced a risk of injury or death from a mass shooting on campus after officials began investigating the first shooting in the dormitory earlier that morning. Based on such limited information as they had at the time, neither the police officers nor university officials knew who the shooter was, but they initially believed with some cause that the first murder victim's boyfriend, whom they had already questioned, may have been the shooter. Again, based on such information as was available at the time, the officials reasonably believed that the shooter had fled the area and posed no danger to others on campus. That this belief was soon shown by events to be tragically mistaken was not a ground for holding the defendants liable.Peterson illustrates the difficulty of prevailing on a negligence claim arising from a third party's criminally violent conduct, even where a special relationship between the parties exists or is assumed to exist. The law as it has developed has built-in headwinds reflecting a deep-seated reluctance to hold anyone legally accountable for the injuries or deaths other than the perpetrators themselves.