UVA has been named as a defendant in two separate wrongful death suits in three months, fallout from a tragic year at the University. But how much blame lies at school’s doorstep in the unrelated 2010 deaths of lacrosse star Yeardley Love and Virginia Quarterly Review managing editor Kevin Morrissey?
Love’s mother filed a $30 million suit against UVA in May, claiming the coaches of killer George Huguely were partly to blame in her daughter’s death, because they should have known Huguely posed a threat. Morrissey’s family’s $10 million lawsuit alleges former VQR editor-in-chief Ted Genoways caused Morrissey emotional distress that eventually led to his suicide. In both cases, families have named defendants far above the University employees’ heads, with UVA and the Commonwealth itself topping the list.
Proving the liability of an institution like a university—or any third party—often isn’t easy, but it’s not uncommon for people to try. The families of two students slain in the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech won damages when they sued for negligence. Penn State is bracing for a flurry of claims from sex abuse victims in the wake of a guilty verdict for former football coach Jerry Sandusky. And the University of Colorado is facing questions about its failure to follow up on concerns about Aurora movie theater gunman James Holmes’ mental state while he was still a student there.
There is case history to back up such claims, said Charlottesville civil attorney Robert Yates, pointing to a 1970s ruling known as the Tarasoff case in which the Supreme Court determined college psychiatrists had a responsibility to report a man’s intent to kill a fellow student. But for the Love family to prove George Huguely’s coach Dom Starsia had a duty to protect Love, they would have to prove Starsia knew there was a specific threat against her, said Yates.
The Morrissey case is even more complicated, he said. Morrissey took his own life, so proving the University was in some way to blame would require plaintiffs to show his employers were aware of the extent of his distress. “What it hinges on is how much everyone knew about this,” Yates said.
So if pinning responsibility on a school is tough, why name them? There are a few reasons, according to lawyers.
Local wrongful death attorney Yvonne Griffin said including an entire chain of command is a common legal strategy. “In law school, they tell you to put everyone and the kitchen sink [in a suit], because you don’t know who’s going to be kicked out,” said Griffin. “Better to have everyone who’s playing on the team, so to speak, in the ballpark when the game starts.”
Yates said there’s another factor at play. “It all starts with one issue, and that’s money,” he said. “Lawyers look for a deep pocket, and institutions tend to be that target.”
Details on the legal arguments employed in the cases may not be clear for some time.
Criminal proceedings in the Huguely case are still going on, and UVA said last week that the Morrissey suit had not yet been served to anyone at the University. Plaintiffs have up to two years after filing to serve parties with a suit. Attorneys at the Richmond firm Hairfield Morton, which is representing Morrissey’s family, did not return calls for comment.
But consequences may come before court appearances. Becoming the subject of wrongful death suits can have negative effects beyond bad press, said Yates.
“Is there going to be a knee-jerk reaction every time somebody gets upset?” he asked. “It becomes a balancing issue on how much it affects the overall institution.”
And then there’s the issue of the financial burden, said Griffin, whether it’s legal fees or a settlement. Should the tab add up for the University, the state legislature could conceivably withhold funding to counter the expense.
“The costs of a case like this are going to be huge,” she said. “The taxpayers are totally on the hook.”