Denver Post Article
By Dave Curtain
September 23, 2004
Families of students who die after drinking at fraternity events have collected millions of dollars in wrongful-death lawsuits from the fraternities and their members. Occasionally, a university is held liable and tagged with a multimillion-dollar settlement.
Police announced Wednesday that University of Colorado student Lynn Gordon Bailey Jr., 18, a pledge at Chi Psi, was part of an initiation ritual involving alcohol in the hours before he was found dead in the Boulder fraternity house Friday.
"My best guess is that the university would have no liability, period," said University of Denver law professor Tom Russell who teaches tort issues. "The fraternity is a private institution that is not controlled by the university. On the other hand, the fraternity itself faces substantial liability."
In February, a Miami-Dade County jury awarded $14 million to the parents of a drunken University of Miami freshman who drowned swimming across a lake in a Kappa Sigma hazing. The jury found two fraternity brothers 90 percent at fault. The parents are trying to collect from the insurance policy of the fraternity and from the homeowner's policies of the fraternity brothers' parents.
"Typically a fraternity has insurance to cover such injuries, but the insurance policy may exclude coverage of illegal activities which would include serving alcohol to minors," Russell said. "If the insurance won't provide coverage, then each member of the fraternity and possibly their parents would be likely defendants."
That's exactly what happened at California State University–Chico in 2002, where eight Pi Kappa Phi fraternity brothers agreed to pay a combined $500,000 settlement in the drinking death of a freshman after an initiation ceremony.
But the university can find itself settling suits. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology agreed to pay a family $4.75 million and establish a $1.25 million scholarship fund in a settlement following the 1997 drinking death of a freshman during a Phi Gamma Delta hazing.
MIT had argued that the university cannot be held responsible for the actions of students in privately owned houses such as fraternity houses. "We cannot monitor a student's behavior 24 hours a day," Rosalind H. Williams, the school's dean of students said at the time.
In another case, Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., was dismissed from a $21 million lawsuit in 2000 in the alcohol-hazing death of a student. "The law is very clear: When you're in college, you must own up to your own actions," Iona attorney Anthony Dougherty told the New York Post.