Ben “Ziggy” Williamson, The Gunslinger to the Ivory Tower Came: Should Universities Have a Duty to Prevent Rampage Killings?

60 Fla. L. Rev. 895 (2008) | | | |

INTRODUCTION :: On April 16, 2007, Seung Hui Cho, a Virginia Tech student, went on a rampage across the university’s campus. He murdered thirty- two people-twenty-seven students and five professors-before killing himself. Cho’s rampage was not only the worst mass shooting on an American university campus, it was the worst in American history.

Cho’s horrific actions and his highly publicized video manifestos revealed a deeply disturbed personality. But to some students, teachers, and administrators, Cho’s nature was not a revelation. Cho’s troubled history included suicidal and homicidal ideation since middle school, violent and disturbing writings, classroom behavior that frightened other students, confrontations with professors, allegations of stalking, and involuntary outpatient commitment. Various university administrators and officials knew about individual incidents or aspects of Cho’s history, but “no one connected all the dots.”


Some of the victims’ families felt that Virginia Tech had a duty to connect all the dots. They hired counsel and gave notice of a possible lawsuit to Virginia’s attorney general’s office. Given the findings of the Virginia Tech Review Panel, attorneys for by the families could have claimed that the university negligently failed to identify Cho as a threat and prevent him from carrying out his murderous plan. Ultimately, however, most of the families settled.

Virginia Tech was not the first university rampage killing for which victims or their families sought compensation, nor is it likely to be the last. Because the current state of the law is unclear, this Note explores whether universities should have a duty to identify and thwart students that pose a threat to the lives of other students. Part II traces the history of university rampage killings and the sparse legal history surrounding them. In light of that sparse legal history, Part III considers the Tarasoff case and its progeny, which impose upon some professionals a duty to protect third parties from harm. Finally, Part IV considers and ultimately rejects the application of a Tarasoff-like duty to protect in the context of university rampage killings. Part V concludes that imposing upon universities a duty to prevent rampage killings would accomplish little, and cause great harm.

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