Fraternities are heavily marketed to young college students as a valuable, right-of-passage experience. The promise of a four-year party can be a powerful draw to a group who will soon be staring down a decade or more of burdensome loan debt.
However, the experience has resulted in serious injuries for more than a few. As a recent investigation by The Atlantic revealed, in some cases members are left permanently scarred, disabled – even dead.
Our Tuscaloosa injury attorneys recall a case just a few years ago in which a fraternity brother attending the University of Alabama sued the Gamma Alpha chapter of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity following an alleged hazing incident that occurred when he was 19.
In that instance, the plaintiff alleged that he was surrounded by numerous fraternity members in the main lobby of the house and forced to drink excessive amounts of alcohol, including eight beers, 10 shots of liquor and several swills from a half-gallon bottle of vodka. After he passed out on the floor, he was placed in the passenger seat of a pickup truck and left there overnight.
State law bars hazing, which is defined as a willful act or situation that intentionally or recklessly endangers the mental or physical health of a student. It’s a Class C misdemeanor in Alabama.
State law further allows a parent or guardian to sue any individual or organization that provides alcohol to an under-21 minor who is then harmed as a result. The fraternity used this as a loophole in the civil case against it. Any action could only be taken by the student’s parent’s – not the students. By the time the court had established this, the statute of limitations had run out on any claim the parents could make. The case was dismissed.
The Atlantic piece discusses at length how fraternities and universities have been able to escape liability for many injuries sustained at fraternity houses. A recent Bloomberg article indicated that since 2005, more than 60 students have died in incidents linked to fraternities. The number of serious injuries connected to these organizations is exponentially higher.
A significant number of lawsuits that arise from these incidents result in confidential settlement agreements.
In many cases, what is in dispute is not the facts. Rather, it’s a matter of liability. An underage student drinks excessively at a fraternity party and lands in the hospital with brain damage as a result. Who is responsible? The individual fraternity brothers who furnished the alcohol? The local fraternity chapter? The national chapter? The university?
The answer is often a complex one, with each individual case requiring its own thorough examination.
Just recently in Indiana, the Indiana Supreme Court in the case of Yost v. Wabash College ruled that a student left permanently brain damaged after a fraternity hazing incident would be allowed to pursue his civil litigation against the local fraternity chapter, but not the national chapter or the university.
The most common claims for fraternity injury are the result of assault and battery (23 percent) followed by sexual assault (15 percent), slip and falls (10 percent), fall from heights (9 percent), auto accidents (7 percent) and hazing (7 percent).
These cases can be ripe for litigation and compensation. However, it’s going to depend heavily on the circumstances of the case.
The Dark Power of Fraternities, Feb. 19, 2014, By Caitlin Flanagan, The Atlantic
"After my husband was injured in a burn accident at work, we felt the accident could have been avoided. I was not sure where to start, but after careful research, we met with Justin Smith and shared our experience. From day one, we felt we were in good hands. Justin and Dell explained everything and kept us informed from start to finish. It was a complicated case that took an outside the box approach. Both Justin and Dell made us feel like part of the team."