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Ongoing Trends in Fraternity and Sorority Lawsuits

July 8, 2022

By: MacKinley B. Phelps

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On November 1, 2012, a pledge of the Northern Illinois University chapter of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity tragically died due to alcohol poisoning. Six years later, attorneys on behalf of the deceased’s family were able to obtain a settlement of $14,000,000. This settlement was split between 44 individual fraternity and sorority members who were present on the date of the incident, as well as Pi Kappa Alpha’s NIU chapter.[i]

This story is not at all uncommon. According to the available data, in the fraternity and sorority system, at least one hazing death has occurred on average per year since 1838.[ii] Beyond hazing incidents, fraternities and sororities have been involved in lawsuits stemming from sexual assault to dram shop liability to premises liability. However, the national chapter entities of fraternities and sororities whose members are implicated in these lawsuits have been notably absent from these lawsuits.

For instance, in the above-mentioned case, the Supreme Court of Illinois ruled that Pi Kappa Alpha’s national chapter did not owe a duty to the deceased because it lacked a special relationship to impose such a duty.[iii] There have been countless other lawsuits attempting to implicate the national chapter. However, many courts have been hesitant to impose a duty on a national chapter for the actions of its members.[iv]

Rulings like this have shielded national organizations from liability, thereby leaving the undergraduate chapter entity and the homeowner’s policies maintained by the parents of the implicated members to foot the bill for any settlement or judgment. Because of this, representation of a fraternity or sorority may become a hodgepodge of competing insurance interests and tender battles that may detract from the defense of the organization and its members. Further, this seemingly never-ending dispute over insurance coverage has prompted attorneys to find new ways to get around a fraternity or sorority’s national organization’s dismissal from a lawsuit to go after insurance with the deepest pockets.[v]

The trend we are seeing is plaintiffs’ attorneys attaching negligent supervision, negligent training, or other similar claims to their lawsuits in order to implicate the fraternity or sorority at large, thereby gaining access to multi-million dollar insurance coverage and avoiding chasing down individual members who may be effectively judgment-proof. These theories of liability seem to establish a sufficient nexus between a national organization and its members enough for the lawsuit against the national organization to survive dismissal or summary judgment.[vi]

Only recently have we begun seeing results of these negligent supervision and training claims beyond the initial phases of litigation. One such instance is a 2020 lawsuit filed on behalf of a pledge of the University of Texas at Arlington chapter of Sigma Chi. Plaintiff alleged in this lawsuit that he was hospitalized with alcohol poisoning due to hazing. However, instead of tracking down every individual member who may have been present at the chapter house when the alleged hazing occurred, Plaintiff filed negligent supervision, negligence per se, and gross negligence claims against Sigma Chi Corporation, the UTA chapter entity, as well as Sigma Chi’s risk management and insurance entity, Risk Management Foundation. Plaintiff’s claims of gross negligence and negligence per se are the types of claims that may be excluded under Sigma Chi’s insurance policy due to alleged violation of a hazing statute and intentional conduct involved in that hazing.[vii] However, the claims of negligent supervision and failure to administer effective risk management policies seem to have kept the national chapter of Sigma Chi and Risk Management Foundation in the lawsuit until a settlement was eventually reached in August 2021.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is likely we saw a brief lull in fraternity and sorority-related lawsuits due to schools closing campuses and going remote. However, as schools have opened again over the last year or so, we may begin seeing an increase in these types of lawsuits. An example is a lawsuit that was filed against the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity’s national chapter and its Texas A&M University chapter due to failure to supervise and institute a proper national risk management program for its undergraduate chapters. The incident involved two pledges who allegedly suffered burns after members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon poured industrial cleaner on them. The industrial cleaner caused such severe burns that the two pledges both needed skin graft surgeries and are now permanently disfigured. The incident occurred in the spring semester of 2021, one semester after students began returning to Texas A&M’s campus for in-person classes.[viii] This case is still ongoing.

If this trend continues to spread across jurisdictions, it is imperative for attorneys to understand the unique environment surrounding fraternity and sorority leadership to properly defend their clients. If more of these cases continue to survive the early dismissal or summary judgment stages of litigation, attorneys should expect administration of risk management policies from the national level to local chapters playing a much larger role than it has in the past.

 


[i] https://fraternallaw.com/newsletter2/largest-ever-settlement-reached-in-hazing-case

[ii] https://www.hanknuwer.com/hazing-deaths/

[iii] Bogenberger v. Pi Kappa Alpha Corporation, Inc. 104 N.E.3d 1110 (Ill. 2018).

[iv] See e.g. Hankins v. Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., 447 F.Supp.3d 672 (N.D. Ill. 2020); Kollaritsch v. Mich. State Univ. Bd. Of Trs., No. 1:15-cv-01191, 2016 WL 10733962 (W.D. Mich. Nov. 23, 2016); Garofalo v. Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity, 616 N.W.2d 647 (Iowa 2000).

[v] See Pls’ Original Pet., Close v. Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Cause No. 2021-68279 (234th Dist. Ct., Harris County, Tex.) (“Close Petition”); Pl’s Orignal Pet., Riner v. Sigma Chi Corporation, Cause No. DC-20-00410 (44th Dist. Ct., Dallas County, Tex.); Pl’s First Am. Pet., Doe v. Phi Delta Theta (414th Dist. Ct., McLennan County, Tex.)

[vi] See Jones v. Pi Kappa Alpha International Fraternity, Inc., 431 F.Supp.3d 518 (U.S.D. N.J. 2019)

[vii] See https://sigmachi.org/rmf/home/education-and-resources/

[viii] See Close Petition.


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