By Matthew A. Ward
PORTSMOUTH, Virginia (Reuters) - A jury on Wednesday found Virginia Tech negligent in the 2007 massacre at the university by being slow to issue a campus warning as the shooting spree unfolded, and recommended that the families of two slain students be awarded $4 million each.
The families of students Julia Pryde and Erin Peterson brought the wrongful death lawsuit against the state university. They were among 32 people were killed before the gunman, Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho, committed suicide.
Jurors in Christiansburg, Virginia, determined that university officials should have been quicker to issue a campus warning after two students were killed by gunfire in a residence hall on the morning of April 16, 2007.
Soon after the university notified the campus that a shooting had occurred, a student gunman continued his more than two-hour rampage in a classroom building elsewhere on the campus.
Jurors awarded $4 million each to the families of Pryde and Peterson.
Virginia law requires awards against the state to be capped at $100,000 each, and government attorneys immediately requested that the judgment amounts be reduced to the legal limit, Virginia attorney general spokesman Brian Gottstein said.
By law, juries are not told of the cap until after a decision is rendered, Gottstein said.
According to memorial pages on the Virginia Tech website, Pryde, of Middletown, New Jersey, was studying biological systems engineering, while Peterson, of Chantilly, Virginia, was majoring in international studies.
Virginia Tech expressed disappointment with the verdict, having argued that exhaustive investigations failed to produce any evidence that university officials were negligent.
University spokesman Mark Owczarski said in a statement that Virginia Tech stood by its view that the administration and law enforcement "did their absolute best" with the information available at the time of the shootings.
The university will discuss the matter further with the state attorney general, review the case and explore all other available options, he said.
He said the university did not believe the evidence presented at trial about the initial residence hall murders proved there had been an increased danger to the campus that day.
"The heinous crimes committed by Seung-Hui Cho were an unprecedented act of violence that no one could have foreseen," he said. "Virginia Tech has always and will continue to put the safety and well being of its students first."
The attorney general's office said the trial evidence established that three law enforcement agencies had unanimously deemed the mass shooting as unforeseeable.
"Only with hindsight can one conclude that Cho's unprecedented acts were foreseeable," the office said.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Education ruled the school should pay a $55,000 fine for failing to issue a timely warning about the shooting. Virginia Tech has appealed the fine.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Beech)