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In agreeing to pay the money, law-school officials accepted no responsibility for a disgruntled student's decision to open fire on his classmates and school administrators.
"I do not believe there was any basis to predict this kind of occurrence or any violence would occur on campus," school President Lu Ellsworth said outside a Roanoke courtroom. Ellsworth said the school agreed to settle the suits to avoid a lengthy and expensive legal battle.
The family of Angela Dales and the three survivors of the shooting in Grundy filed their lawsuits in January seeking nearly $23 million.
In the lawsuits, lawyers for the four students said poor security at the school and a negligent attitude by administrators allowed a gun-wielding student to kill three people -- Dales, the school's dean, and a professor -- and wound three students on Jan. 16, 2002.
Peter Odighizuwa, the student who began firing on school officials and students shortly after learning he was being forced out for poor grades, pleaded guilty to murder in February and is serving six life sentences in prison. A psychiatrist diagnosed Odighizuwa as being a paranoid schizophrenic, but after treatment he was deemed mentally competent to stand trial.
In court today, Dales's father, Danny Dales, said family members decided to settle the suits to be able to finally put the tragedy behind them: "This is the best, I think, for my family."
Under the terms of the agreement, the three survivors will each get slightly less than $220,000. Meanwhile, Angela Dales' 10-year-old daughter, Rebecca Cariens, will get slightly more than $340,000. However, minus the $300,000 in attorney costs and fees the four plaintiffs will have to pay, Rebecca will receive about $235,000, half of which will go into a trust fund.
In their suits, the students alleged that school officials were so busy trying to get the fledgling school accredited by the American Bar Association that they ignored the warnings of students and staff that Odighizuwa, now 46, was a threat. The suit claims Odighizuwa was allowed to "terrorize" everyone at the school. On one occasion, according to the suits, Odighizuwa had pushed a professor aside, took control of the classroom and ranted for 10 minutes.
Odighizuwa was also known to threaten female students and staff, and several students had reported his hostile behavior to administrators, according to the suits. But, according to court papers filed by the students, none of the school officials "took any action whatsoever to prevent the tragedy."
Settlement reached in suits against law school
By Laurence Hammack
The Roanoke Times
December 30, 2004
A $1 million settlement approved today resolves four lawsuits that accused the Appalachian School of Law of ignoring repeated warnings that one of its students was a ticking time bomb until the day he opened fire on the campus.
Two professors and a student were killed and three students were wounded during a Jan. 16, 2002, shooting spree by Peter Odighizuwa. According to the lawsuits, Odighizuwa had become increasingly unstable and potentially violent as he struggled academically at the Grundy school.
With Odighizuwa serving six life sentences in prison following his guilty pleas earlier this year, Thursday's civil settlement marked the end of the protracted legal action that has flowed from the shooting.
The $1 million settlement, the most available under the school's insurance policy, will be split among four plaintiffs under an agreement approved by Judge Clifford Weckstein.
The largest portion — $342,857.14 — will go to the 10-year-old daughter of Angela Dales, who was fatally shot in the school's student lounge.
Another $219,047.62 will go to each of the three students wounded in the shooting: Stacey Beans, Rebecca Brown and Madeline Short.
The families of the remaining two victims — Dean Anthony Sutin and professor Thomas Blackwell, who were both shot to death in their offices — did not file suit.
Plaintiffs' attorney Emmitt Yeary of Abingdon said the school should have known that Odighizuwa was a threat, based on the paranoid schizophrenic's prior pattern of disruptive behavior and verbal threats.
"The horrible events that occurred that day in Grundy, Va., were even more tragic because they could or should have been foreseeable, and preventable, if only simple precautions had been taken," Yeary said.
School officials have denied any liability in the shootings, saying they had no information to show that Odighizuwa was an imminent threat.