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Commonwealth of Virginia v. Peterson

August 5, 2020

The administrators of the estates of two murder victims of the mass shooting at Virginia Tech filed wrongful death suits against the Commonwealth. In their suits plaintiffs alleged that a special relationship existed between the plaintiffs and the University, which gave rise to a duty to warn them of third party criminal acts. Moreover, they asserted that the breach of the duty to warn was the proximate cause of plaintiffs’ death. The Court held that even if a special relationship existed, under the facts of plaintiffs’ case the Commonwealth did not have a duty to warn the students of third party criminal acts. In making its decision, the Court noted that the duty to warn of danger from third party criminal acts is an exception to the rule, and in order for the duty to be imposed a degree of foreseeability must be established. The Court identified two levels of foreseeability that have given rise to a duty to warn – “known or reasonably foreseeable harm” and the heightened standard of “imminent probability of harm.” In cases applying either standard, the Court stated that it has frequently concluded that, as a matter of law, no duty to warn existed. Applying that case law to the facts of plaintiffs’ case, the Court held that “based on the limited information available to the Commonwealth prior to [plaintiffs’ death], it cannot be said that it was reasonably foreseeable that students in [plaintiffs’ dorm] would fall victim to criminal harm.”