Earlier this year, a 19 year old freshman died after a night of drinking during a pledge event at a fraternity house at Penn State. During the pledge event, students were served large amounts of alcohol. The student died of severe injuries after falling down a flight of stairs, sustaining a skull fracture and severe internal injuries. Various civil lawsuits are expected to be filed against the school, the fraternity and other individuals. These types of injury lawsuits are filed after a hazing injury or alcohol-related accident at school.
Initially, prosecutors charged over a dozen fraternity members and even the fraternity itself in connection with the student’s death. The most serious charges include manslaughter. Recent video footage of the pledge event showed that the student was served 18 drinks in under 90 minutes. Additional charges were filed after the footage, which was previously deleted, was retrieved. See https://www.nbcphiladelphia.com, New Charges Filed as Video Footage Reveals Penn State Fraternity Pledge Timothy Piazza Given 18 Drinks in 82 Minutes.
The case has received national news coverage, and in response, school officials at Penn State initiated an investigation and also implemented safety measures aimed at Greek organizations at the university.
According to a November 7, 2017 press release, Penn State’s investigation resulted in disciplinary action against seven students. Another nineteen students took a “conduct withdraw” rather than face disciplinary proceedings, and six students received no disciplinary action. See http://news.psu.edu, Student Conduct Office completes 32 investigations related to Beta Theta Pi.
Some of the safety measures include university control of the misconduct process for Greek organizations and staffing of social events by University employees. In addition, one of the stricter measures includes a permanent revocation for hazing. The school will now permanently revoke recognition of any chapter which engages in “hazing that involves alcohol, physical abuse, or any behavior that puts a student’s mental or physical health at risk.” See http://news.psu.edu, Penn State announces new safety initiatives for Greek-letter organizations, June 2, 2017.
The legal implication of these safety measures is that the University could bear direct liability when a fraternity or sorority event results in an accident or injury, especially if a school employee was present or was supposed to be present but was not. In other words, a student who is injured at fraternity event, which was staffed by a school employee, could have a valid negligence claim against the University itself.
Typically, these types of claims against a school or university only succeed when there is evidence that a school employee created the danger, knew of the danger or should have known about it. While cases often succeed against the entity like the fraternity, they are much more difficult to prove against the school itself. Penn State’s new safety measures will certainly make it easier for students injured in hazing events or similar activities to bring lawsuits against the school directly.
For more information, visit the Alcohol Injury Accident Law Library.