- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 26, 2008

RICHMOND (AP) — Those close to the victims of the Virginia Tech shootings offered mixed reactions yesterday to a proposed multimillion-dollar state settlement and whether it will properly honor their loved ones.

Families of the victims have until Monday to say whether they will accept the settlement, which would give $100,000 to representatives of each of the 32 killed and ensure that families will have the chance to talk to the governor and university officials.

Under the proposal, a copy of which the Associated Press obtained, $800,000 would be available to injured victims.

Roger O’Dell, whose son Derek was among two dozen wounded in the April 16 massacre, said that while he considers the proposal reasonable , he is concerned about how the money would be split among the survivors. The proposal only states that the money would be distributed “based on a matrix acceptable to the commonwealth, with a maximum payment of $100,000 to any individual.”

“I’m inclined to believe this will not be settled by April 15th,” Mr. O’Dell said. “I think there are too many question marks in the proposed offer.”

Seung-hui Cho, a mentally disturbed student, killed two students in a dormitory just after 7 a.m. University officials did not send an e-mail alert until more than two hours later — just before Cho killed 30 others in a classroom building across campus and then committed suicide.

Twenty-two families have filed notice with the state that they might sue. They have until April 16 to file. Families of all those killed and the survivors would be eligible for a payout under the settlement.

In exchange for accepting the proposal, family members would give up the right to sue the state government, Virginia Tech, the town of Blacksburg, Montgomery County and the New River Valley Community Services Board, which provides mental health services in the area. Cho had been ruled a danger to himself during a court commitment hearing in 2005 and was ordered to receive outpatient mental health care. He never received the treatment.

Diane Strollo, whose daughter Hilary was shot three times but is back at Virginia Tech, said it was her understanding that the negotiations are continuing.

“The families want accountability, justice and change,” she said. “We have yet to see it.”

Mr. O’Dell said there is not a consensus among the families regarding the offer, though in general many feel that it’s “good in a number of respects.”

“It’s totally across to the board as to how people feel. Some people feel that there is no wrongdoing, and therefore there’s no obligation by the state or the university to be paying anybody anything,” Mr. O’Dell said.

“At the other end, there’s some who feel that this agreement — proposed settlement agreement — doesn’t go nearly far enough and there needs to be much more money put into it.”

The state, its institutions and employees are largely protected from civil lawsuits by “sovereign immunity” — a doctrine rooted in a monarchical tradition that allowed grievances against the king only if he said it was OK.

However, Virginia has waived sovereign immunity in a limited fashion through the Tort Claims Act, which permits damages of up to $100,000 for bodily injury caused by the state’s negligence.

The total cost of the settlement, including attorneys’ fees, adds up to about $8.5 million, plus the cost of reimbursing and paying for medical and psychological treatment for victims’ families and survivors.

The varying opinions may make it difficult for the agreement to move forward, Mr. O’Dell said. The proposal requires that participation by “nearly all claimants” is necessary, and the state can withdraw the settlement if there is insufficient agreement among the parties.

Gov. Tim Kaine was in the District yesterday when he told reporters that he is hopeful a deal can be reached.

“The idea is to be creative, to respond to legitimate needs that these families have, to do that within the confines of what Virginia’s or other parties’ liabilities might be,” he said.

Some wounded students have had enormous expenses, Mrs. Strollo said.

“Several of the surviving students that graduated in 2007 have had ongoing major surgeries and hospitalizations, are unable to fulfill employment opportunities, are no longer covered by their parents’ health insurance, nor can afford their own,” she said.

“All of them are seeking a way to honor their child’s memory, and all of them want to give to others,” said Lu Ann McNabb of Centreville, a close friend of the family of Reema Samaha, killed in the classroom building, who also knows the family of victim Erin Nicole Peterson. She noted that many families have established foundations and scholarships to help other students.

On the other hand, she said, the families and friends have suffered greatly.

“The psychological cost has been huge,” Miss McNabb said. “Many of them have had to seek counseling and probably will have to do so for the rest of their lives.”

Mr. Kaine said the payment figure has been just one of the items discussed since last summer with the families.

The proposal creates a $3.5 million “Public Purpose Fund” that would be divided between charitable purposes such as campus safety and security grants, and payments toward victims or family members facing severe hardships.

Under the deal, families of those killed and survivors also would receive money toward medical and counseling expenses. The state would provide health insurance to seriously injured victims.

In October, the families and surviving victims received payments ranging from $11,500 to $208,000 from the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund, set up in the days after the shootings to handle donations that poured into the school.

• Sue Lindsey reported from Roanoke, and AP writer Sarah Karush contributed to this report from the District.

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