Schools at all levels, as part of the responsibility entrusted to them to safeguard the safety of their students, face the ongoing problem of hazing. One case that made headlines was the death of a pledge who passed away after a night of excessive drinking at an Illinois university fraternity house in November 2012. The case yielded the criminal prosecution of 22 students and a wrongful death lawsuit by the parents of the dead student. A ruling last year by the First District Appellate Court revived the parents’ civil case and gave them a renewed opportunity to recover compensation for the wrongful death of their son.
The deceased student was a freshman pledge at one of the schools’ fraternities and, as a pledge, was required to attend certain mandatory events. One of the activities that was a part of the pledging process at this fraternity was a “Greek Family Night” that allegedly involved the pledges receiving a large dose of verbal abuse and a larger dose of coerced binge drinking. The party’s alleged procedures called for the pledges to consume a four-ounce drink of vodka in each of seven different rooms in the fraternity house. All of this allegedly took place inside a 90-minute period of time. As the pledges lost consciousness, the fraternity’s leaders allegedly instructed nobody to call 911 or to obtain medical attention for the incapacitated pledges.
By the next morning, one of the pledges was dead. He had a blood-alcohol level of .43, which is more than five times the legal limit for driving. The parents of the dead pledge sued the fraternity, the chapter, and numerous members of the fraternity (along with the sorority women who partook of the party) for wrongful death. Specifically, the parents alleged that the pledge’s death was the result of his participation in the mandatory party, and the fraternity leaders and others’ actions violated Illinois’ Hazing Act. In this case, the university did not know about (and had not sanctioned) the party, so the parents did not include the school in their lawsuit.
The defendants sought the dismissal of their case by arguing that the Hazing Act didn’t apply, that Illinois’ law related to social hosts did apply, and that, under this law, they could not be liable. “Illinois common law does not recognize a duty owed by social hosts in serving alcohol to their guests,” they argued.
This argument persuaded the trial court, which ruled in favor of the defendants. The parents appealed. and the appellate court ruled for the parents. Illinois caselaw already included a decision that greatly weakened the defendants’ position. In Quinn v. Sigma Rho Chapter of Beta Theta Pi Fraternity, the appellate court ruled in favor of a fraternity pledge who suffered serious and permanent medical harm after a night of excess drinking as part of a mandatory event. Given the level of coercion placed upon these pledges (in the form of “social pressure to comply with initiation requirements”), the relationship between a fraternity and its pledges, when it came to serving alcohol during pledge events, was not the same as the relationship between a social host and a guest. The courts reached a similar result a few years later in Haber v. Anderson, a case of an alcohol-related death of a new member of a university lacrosse team.
As these courts have held, when “drinking excessive amounts of alcohol was a de facto requirement for membership in a school related club,” liability can be transferred from the drinker to the club “under principles of comparative negligence.” Issues like the severity of the pressure on pledges to drink and the extent to which the club did or did not provide medical attention to fallen pledges were things that should be decided by a jury (or a judge in a bench trial), the court determined.
However, Illinois caselaw says that individual liability only extends as far as the people who actually held the keys to membership in the club. In the current case, this meant that all of the students who were not members of the fraternity were entitled to be dismissed from the case.
The ruling has been appealed, and the Illinois Supreme Court has announced that it will hear the case.
If your loved one has lost their life due to the negligence or misconduct of others, talk to the diligent Chicago wrongful death attorneys at Katz, Friedman, Eisenstein, Johnson, Bareck & Bertuca. Our attorneys have been representing injured people and their loved ones for many years and are ready to help you with your case. To set up a free case evaluation, contact us at 800-444-1525 or through our website.
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