Car Accidents

Settlement reached in lawsuit over Virginia Tech Cadet’s 2010 crash

CHRISTIANSBURG — A Virginia Tech graduate will be paid $1 million after settling a lawsuit against a Corps of Cadets official earlier this month.

James Cook first filed a lawsuit after he was permanently paralyzed in a car accident on Oct. 2, 2010. Cook and three fellow Tech Corps sophomores were riding unrestrained in an SUV. They were on their way to a picnic that “should have been a happy event in the life of the cadets,” then-Virginia Tech spokesman Larry Hincker wrote at the time.

They never arrived after crashing in a rollover accident on a Montgomery County road. An older cadet drove wildly in an effort, to rattle the younger cadets, a student later told police.

Cook, then 19, suffered a spinal burst fracture and permanent paralysis of his lower extremities. Court filings show that as of July 2017, he’d had more than $800,000 in continuing medical expenses as a result of the crash.

The settlement brings the total of money paid out by the state from the incident to more than $1.4 million. The lawsuit was dismissed in Montgomery County Circuit Court in early January .

Cook will be compensated by the Commonwealth of Virginia risk management plan, a fund that acts as insurance for state agencies and their employees.

The payout amounts from the crash were obtained by The Roanoke Times after a Virginia Freedom of Information Act request.

Cook, along with two other cadets injured in the accident, filed suit against Capt. James Snyder, a deputy Corps commandant, claiming that he knew or should have known about what they called an initiation tradition.

Meanwhile, a Virginia Tech spokesman maintained that any university employee who participated in an event that put students in serious harm would summarily be fired.

“It’s an inaccurate assumption or belief that hazing could potentially be a condoned action in the Corps,” the spokesman, Mark Owczarski, said Thursday.

Fellow cadet Thomas Friss also settled for $375,000 in late 2017. His injuries from the accident included a broken back and left femur, , a fractured skull and liver laceration.

Friss and Cook were seeking a total of $56 million in damages.

The Roanoke Times previously reported that another cadet injured in the crash, Timothy Black, settled for $75,000 under the state risk management plan.

A fourth cadet injured in the crash, Katherine Henderson, did not file suit.

Citing an agreement between the two sides in the settlement, Owczarski declined to talk about the incident or the lawsuit. He also said Snyder, as well as Corps of Cadets Commandant Maj. Gen. Randal Fullhart would not be available for an interview . Messages left for Cook and Friss’s lawyers requesting comment were not returned.

In the wake of the crash, then-Tech President Charles Steger wrote to a prosecutor that a university review had determined “hazing was involved.” Such findings mandate, under state law, letters like the one Steger sent.

However, the driver of the car, George Fesmire, was never charged with hazing. His roommate Joshua Anderson, who told police in a written statement he’d suggested that Fesmire “swerve a little to shake up the sophomores in the back,” was never charged with hazing, either.

Instead Fesmire was found guilty of misdemeanor reckless driving and paid a $500 fine.

Cook, Friss and Black have all settled cases against Fesmire and Anderson.

According to previous Roanoke Times stories, the Corps has had issues with events that were at the time characterized as hazing. In 1996, six Corps members were suspended for two semesters for taking another cadet to a remote area on a cold night and leaving him to find his way home.

A cadet was expelled and seven were placed on probation for a 1988 hazing incident that injured a student.

Freshmen used to be called “rats” and were “treated like the dregs of the Earth,” according to a 1993 Roanoke Times story about the Corps re-vamping its image.

In a general interview about hazing and the Corps of Cadets, Owczarski said hazing isn’t tolerated by university leadership. He said the Corps does not have a problem with hazing .

“The Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets doesn’t hold initiation events … where they go and they’re initiated,” he said. “They are selected into their various groups and they become parts of those groups. They’re not initiated — they simply become.

“Virginia Tech has a zero tolerance policy toward hazing for individuals or any other element of the university.”

Owczarski said since 2010, there’s been one documented case of a Corps member found guilty of hazing under Tech’s student code of conduct, which occurred in 2012.

That’s the same year former cadet Jessica Ewing was kicked out of the Corps.

Ewing was convicted of first-degree murder in the 2014 killing of Samantha Shrestha — which was unrelated to Ewing’s time in the Corps.

However, she testified as part of questioning during her sentencing hearing that she’d sprayed water in the face of cadets going through routine exercise drills. The incident was classified as waterboarding and she was ostracized from the organization, she said in 2015 courtroom testimony.

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