Two families of students killed in the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech are in court today, asking a three-judge panel of the Virginia Supreme Court to allow them to appeal a judge’s decision on the negligence case they successfully pursued against the university. The families of Erin Peterson and Julia Pryde sued the university for negligence, and the jury agreed and awarded $4 million to each to the families. But a state appellate judge reduced the awards to $100,000 under a state law capping non-economic damages. The families want to reinstate the university president as a defendant, but I object to the reduction in the damages award.
That reduction begs the following questions: Why don’t we trust the same jurors who hear all of the facts, listen to all of the testimony, and determine legal liability to determine the amount of damages? What makes a judge, or any small group of judges, so special that they should have the power to override a jury’s decision? Why do we allow state legislators to arbitrarily set a rigid cap on non-economic damages? Can’t state law at least enable a jury to “bust the cap” as it sees fit in unique circumstances? Where in the Founding Documents of the United States is there any support by the Founding Fathers for the idea of overriding a jury’s decision on damages through an inflexible state statute or an arbitrary decision by a judge?
The jury in the Virginia Tech shootings case found that the university’s senior officials were negligent in not warning students that a homicidal maniac had already killed students and was on the loose. The jury consciously decided that the university officials were so grossly negligent that the they had to award millions of dollars in damages to the families. That decision by twelve honorable Virginians should have been honored in state law and by state judges.
I hope the Virginia Governor and General Assembly will consider that their fellow Virginians Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Mason honored and protected the jury’s right to determine civil liability and never, ever, proposed limiting a jury’s discretion to award damages. It was Madison who described trial by jury in civil cases “as essential to secure the liberty of the people as any one of the pre-existent rights of nature” and who protected it in the Seventh Amendment. Mason refused to sign the Constitution because of the absence of a Bill of Rights, and he specifically demanded trial by jury in civil cases. To arbitrarily cap a jury’s award, without even the ability of a single jury to override a statutory cap in special circumstances, ignores the unique place granted to civil jury trials by Founders such as Jefferson, Madison and Mason and dilutes the power of a jury to hold a defendant fully liable for gross negligence.