Torts I, Pages 437–442

Commonwealth v. Peterson

Supreme Court of Virginia, 2013


Police at Virginia Tech found the bodies of two shooting victims at Virginia Tech. One was a female and one was a male in just his boxers. The University Policy Group sent a campus-wide email notifying them that there was a shooting at West Ambler Johnson Hall and to be alert for anything suspicious. Police believed it was a domestic homicide and that the shooter had fled the campus because the shooting was in a remote part thereof. They found a bloody footprint and learned the female victim's boyfriend was a gun enthusiast. They found the boyfriend through a BOLO, who seemed "shocked" and "scared." He said he had been at a different university at the time of the shooting. While talking to him, the police got word of an active shooter in another part of campus. In this shooting, the decedents were murdered by the shooter of the first killings.

Procedural History:

The jury found for the plaintiffs, awarding $4 million to each family. The court reduced each verdict to $100,000 upon defendant's motion.


Did defendant have a duty to warn the decedents of the danger the shooter posed?

Defendant's Arguments:

  • Defendant did not have a special relationship with decedents.

  • Even if defendant did have a relevant special relationship, the evidence adduced did not give rise to a duty to warn of third party criminal acts.


People generally do not have a duty to warn or protect others from the criminal acts of a third person, especially when assaultive.


Page 440, Paragraph 4–5Such a duty can exist when a special relationship exists between the defendant and either the plaintiff or the criminal actor. "Certain special relationships such as that of a common carrier/passenger, innkeeper/guest, and employer/employee impose a duty to warn when the danger of third party criminal acts is known or reasonably foreseeable. In instances, however, where the special relationship was that of a business owner/invitee or landlord/tenant, we have imposed a duty to warn of third party criminal acts only where there was an "imminent probability of injury" from a third party criminal act."


The circumstances did not even rise to the level of reasonable foreseeability, so defendant could not be liable.


Defendant did not have a duty to warn students of the potential for third-party criminal acts. Reversed.