RICHMOND, Va. – The state's highest court on Thursday threw out a wrongful death verdict stemming from the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, but the ruling won't shake the heightened diligence on the nation's campuses following the lone gunman's rampage at Tech, campus safety advocates said.
The Virginia Supreme Court concluded that Tech administrators did not have a duty to warn students that a gunman remained at large after killing two people in a dormitory, and that they had no way to anticipate that he would go on to kill 30 more and himself.
Still, campus safety advocates say the improved security at the nation's colleges and universities is the "living legacy" of the victims of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, and unlikely to change in the wake of the ruling.
"The April 16, 2007, tragedy forever changed campus safety," said S. Daniel Carter, director of the 32 National Campus Safety Initiative, named for the number of victims at Tech. "This court ruling does nothing to diminish that."
The justices ruled Thursday in the case of two students whose families argued that they might have survived the rampage if administrators alerted the campus earlier to the gunman's initial shootings. Instead, Erin Nicole Peterson, Julia Kathleen Pryde and 28 other people were killed nearly three hours later in Norris Hall, a classroom building.
But the justices agreed with the state — that there was no way to anticipate student Seung-Hui Cho's deadly intentions.
"Thus, as a matter of law, the commonwealth did not have a duty to protect students against third party criminal acts," the court wrote.
Since the Tech killings, campuses throughout the country have instituted warning systems across different platforms — cellphone alerts, warning sirens — and have been proactive in working to preventing a repeat of what happened in Blacksburg. Advocates and family members of victims said the ruling won't change that.
"We draw strength knowing that the 32 innocent lives tragically lost were not in vain," the VTV Family Outreach Foundation, a nonprofit established by the families of victims and survivors, said in a statement.
"Improvements to how colleges and universities across the country, post April 16, 2007, handle threat assessment and emergency response spurred by the tragedy have fundamentally improved campus safety. Institutions, including Virginia Tech, now often have mass notifications out to their entire campus within minutes rather than hours after any serious incident occurs."
In Thursday's opinion, the justices reversed a jury's findings and issued a final ruling, meaning there is no avenue for appeal. In response, the state attorney general's office said in a statement that the court "found what we have said all along to be true."
Spokesman Brian Gottstein wrote in an email: "The commonwealth and its officials at Virginia Tech were not negligent on April 16, 2007. Cho was the lone person responsible for this tragedy."
The case was the lone pending legal action stemming from the massacre, Gottstein said.
The appeal attorney representing the parents of Peterson, 18, and Pryde, 23, said the justices applied a stricter standard than the trial judge. The public perception of the university's actions could be a different matter, attorney L. Steven Emmert said.
"Now in the court of public opinion the university may suffer, that's quite possible, but that's not the court's to deal with," he said.
The trial in the case was held in March 2012 in Montgomery County, near the Tech campus, and jurors found that the state should have issued more timely campus warnings after the dormitory shooting. The jury awarded the families $4 million each. The trial judge later reduced the award to $100,000 each, the state cap on damages.
The trial focused on the time between the dorm shootings, shortly after 7 a.m., and the killings at Norris Hall, shortly before 10 a.m. A campus-wide email at 9:50 a.m. warned of a gunman on campus and advised students to remain inside. By then, Cho had chained the Norris Hall doors and killed the victims.
The state argued that law enforcement officials believed the first shootings were targeted, the result of a domestic dispute, and they concluded the larger campus wasn't at risk. The justices concluded that university officials acted properly.
The Petersons and the Prydes are the only families of Tech victims who did not join in an $11 million settlement. Their attorneys have shielded the families from the media, but they have said they were intent on holding university officials accountable for their actions on April 16, 2007.
The state was the only defendant at trial. In a statement, Tech President Charles Steger, who has announced his retirement, extended his gratitude to state attorneys who argued the appeal. Virginia Tech's statement said the ruling "can never reverse the loss of lives nor the pain experienced by so many families and friends of victims of one person."
Andrew Goddard, whose son Colin was wounded at Tech, said he found the ruling upsetting, and he wondered whether universities would see an opening to relax safety measures.
"I think it certainly takes the pressure off universities," he wrote in an email to The Associated Press. "I would hope that all future freshman orientations clearly spell out that, despite all the policy changes and advanced notification systems, the university actually has no 'duty' to use them. Let's see how parents react to that."
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.