University Pays $2.9M For Death Of University Student From Hazing
A prominent University recently moved to settle a lawsuit over the death of one of their students during a fraternity hazing ritual. The plaintiffs recovered $2.9 million in that settlement and settled with other parties, including the fraternity for a total of $7 million.
Initially, the University had denied any wrongdoing in the hazing death claiming that the plaintiffs wanted the University to be liable for any and all hazing deaths.
In this case, the student was a pledge and each of the pledges was assigned a big brother. The big brothers gave the pledges high-alcohol-content liquor and instructed them to drink the entire bottle. When the pledge reported to the hospital, his BAC was nearly .40. The pledge drank all or most of the bottle and was dropped off at his apartment. He was underage at the time he was served liquor. He was found by friends who immediately called 911. The official cause of death was alcohol poisoning.
As a result of an investigation, 18 students were suspended, 3 were expelled, and the fraternity was banned from campus. Two students faced criminal charges in the death of the student. They were able to beat homicide charges, but they were convicted of hazing and furnishing alcohol to a minor.
When is the University responsible for a hazing death?
When a hazing death happens on campus, Universities are almost always sued for negligence related to hazing deaths. The University appeared poised to defend the lawsuit, but abruptly settled instead. Were there allegations implicating the University in misconduct?
There didn’t need to be official misconduct for the university to be liable for this death. In this case, the fraternity had been practicing these hazing rituals for years prior to the death. It happened right under the Administration’s noses even as they were discussing their anti-hazing initiatives. So, ultimately, a jury would have heard those allegations and likely come down in favor of the plaintiff.
On the other hand, the defense is left in the position of blaming the decedent for his own death or alternatively, blaming their own students, which they did. It just wasn’t enough because they are responsible for those students too and the fraternity was authorized by the university. So, the defendants had the option of blaming the frat and the victim or settling to avoid that. They did the right thing for themselves and the family.
So, in most cases, the mere fact of a hazing death alone may not implicate a university but it creates so many possible avenues for a negligence argument that it might as well. Even if the University had an anti-hazing initiative, the hazing was going on under their noses for years.
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