Case Example: Wrongful Death from Fraternity Hazing

A college student dies during a fraternity hazing. See how his parents hold the school, fraternity, and frat brothers accountable.

Fraternity hazing stories have become almost legendary for their outrageousness. More than 40 hazing deaths have occured in the last 14 years, most commonly attributed to alcohol poisoning. ¹

This article covers a fictional case study drawn from the fact patterns in actual hazing injury cases.

This case study is for educational purposes only. It is based on actual events, although names have been changed to protect those involved. Any resemblance to real persons or entities is purely coincidental.

Our study deals with a young man’s wrongful death that resulted from a fraternity “hazing” initiation at a public university.

We’ll discuss how the death occurred, the liability of the parties, the final claim resolution.

We conclude with important points you should know about wrongful death claims.

The Hazing Incident

Drew Bronson was a 21-year-old undergraduate student at a well-known state university. Drew had recently joined a popular on-campus fraternity and was ready to make his official pledge.

Drew’s fraternity started the pledging process, whereby they initiated a new group of young men into the fraternity. As part of the pledging ritual, the young men were required to drink large quantities of alcohol, do embarrassing things in public, and go out scantily clad in inclement weather.

On the evening in question, it was snowing, windy, and the temperature outside was 20 degrees. Drew drank 16 beers, alternating with shots of tequila. Drew was then required to go outdoors in his bare feet, wearing nothing but boxer shorts.

After five minutes, Drew began banging on the door, asking to be let back inside the warmth of the fraternity house, but none of the other fraternity members would let him in, due in part to their own drunkenness. The party continued.

Drew was too intoxicated to summon help elsewhere and passed out in the snow not three feet from the fraternity’s front door. Drew was not discovered until the next morning, at which time he had already been deceased for at least three hours.

Drew died from alcohol poisoning and hypothermia.

Criminal Liability for Hazing

Initially, criminal charges were brought against three fraternity members since they were considered the masterminds behind this fraternity hazing ritual.

Despite a history of at least six prior hazing incidents that resulted in pledges rushed to the local emergency room for alcohol poisoning, no criminal charges were filed.

The district attorney declined to press charges when the investigation found that Drew voluntarily continued drinking and was not coaxed into doing so by anyone. Investigators also determined that Drew was a habitual binge drinker.

Without being able to tie Drew’s intoxication to the fraternity brothers, the district attorney felt there was insufficient evidence to bring criminal charges in the case.

The district attorney’s decision did not stop Drew’s family from filing a civil lawsuit for wrongful death against the University, the fraternity, and the three fraternity brothers involved.

Civil Lawsuit for Wrongful Death

The family’s wrongful death lawsuit alleged that the University knew about the dangerous fraternity hazing practices and negligently failed to do anything about them (such as reprimand or suspend the fraternities).

The complaint also alleged that the national fraternity organization knew about and supported hazing practices, as evidenced by written policies and procedures allowing for such pledging rituals.

The three fraternity leaders who supervised the pledging event were charged with being grossly negligent for providing excessive alcohol and, most importantly, for failing to let Drew in from the cold and render aid to him.

The University settled with Drew’s family for an undisclosed sum of money with the provision that they would open an alcohol rehabilitation facility for University students in Drew’s name and shut down the fraternity.

The fraternity agreed to ban alcohol from its houses and provide drug and alcohol abuse information to all members each academic year at the schools where the fraternity still had standing.

The family agreed to dismiss their suit against the three fraternity members in exchange for each of the young men agreeing in writing to perform weekly community service for at least one year.

Important Points About Wrongful Death Claims

  • Even when a party does not face criminal charges, you can file a wrongful death lawsuit in civil court.
  • Settlement agreements are not limited to monetary arrangements. Often the accused party will agree to take corrective action.
  • Unlike a criminal trial where guilt must be decided “beyond a reasonable doubt” in a wrongful death suit, only a preponderance of the evidence is needed to win
  • Wrongful death cases should be handled by an experienced attorney
Charles R. Gueli, Esq. is a personal injury attorney with over 20 years of legal experience. He’s admitted to the NY State Bar, and been named a Super Lawyer for the NY Metro area, an exclusive honor awarded to the top five percent of attorneys. Charles has worked extensively in the areas of auto accidents,... Read More >>