Students injured at Virginia Tech, and families of students killed, will file liability suits. They will be filed against the murderer and various other defendants. The most important defendant will be the University itself. And other universities across the country should be watching, to govern themselves accordingly.
There were warning signs about the Virginia Tech murderer. There were concerns expressed by teachers. There was a judicial finding that he was a danger to society. And there was the Virginia Tech representative who announced a year ago that “now our community can feel safe,” on the defeat of a bill to allow citizens a right to carry weapons for defense on Virginia campuses.
Many commentators are asking, “What should the government do, to prevent such tragedies in the future?” Some experts, including in psychiatry, are saying, “Patient confidentiality must be preserved.”
Both sides are missing the point. The government itself does not have to do anything. A series of large negligence judgments against Virginia Tech for what it, as an independent institution, did and did not do, might make this a self-solving problem.
I won’t argue the facts of the case. Almost two decades ago, I stopped doing liability law. Cut to the chase. From facts I have seen on the Internet, the claims of the students and parents will go to the jury. From what I’ve seen of juries, Virginia Tech will be wise to settle for large amounts, because it will risk even larger jury verdicts.
Go a step beyond that. What will large judgments do to change the behavior of Virginia Tech, and of all colleges and universities? I suggest that all universities will take a look at the warning signs from this murderer — and from prior mass murderers on campuses. They will change their reporting and consolidation procedures, with the full cooperation of parents. The warning signs of personal collapse will reach all who can act on them, from the parents to the school administrators.
Institutions will tighten their policies under which students may be referred for judicial action, or even expelled for personal reasons absent judicial action. And many of the universities which are located in “concealed carry” states will change their exclusionary policies against citizens who are qualified to carry guns for self-defense.
Some universities will choose, blindly, not to change any of their existing policies concerning either student mental health or weapons. In time, there will be another mass murder on a college campus, probably one of those who chose not to change their policies. With the competing examples of some campuses which tightened up, and some which did nothing, the damages will be even higher, perhaps punitive, against those who didn’t act.
In short, decisions because of private law suits may do more to cause safety reforms on college campuses than any actions that governments themselves might make. In fire safety and auto safety, damages have taught the need for reform. Why not here, as well?