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Greek Life and Liability

When the members of a Greek Organization engage in deadly hazing rituals, who can be held accountable?

Alpha Kappa Lambda was quick to suspend operations for it’s Virginia Commonwealth University chapter, following reports made to VCU police in October about possible hazing. Police said there wasn’t enough evidence to pursue charges. Source: Richmond Times Dispatch January 9th, 2019. Image: cc 2009 VCU student commons by Jeff Auth.

It’s a time-honored tradition at many colleges and universities across the country: fraternity and sorority pledging, followed by initiation rituals that frequently involve copious amounts of alcohol and hazing. While most of these activities don’t result in bodily harm, every year there are a few incidents that have led to serious injury and even death.

In the last decade alone there have been more than 40 people in the United States who have died from hazing-related incidents.

When the worst does happen and a young person dies as a result of hazing, the question that immediately arises is: who is at fault for this “wrongful death,” and who can be held responsible for the senseless loss of life? Historically, fraternities have been very thorough in indemnifying themselves against liability in these kinds of deaths. But things may be shifting. There has been a recent settlement involving the death of a young man named Tim Piazza that holds the fraternity accountable, and provides the potential of holding individuals who were involved in Tim’s hazing death accountable, too.

On September 5th, 2018, the parents of Timothy Piazza reached a wrongful death settlement with Beta Theta Pi. In 2017 Timothy suffered fatal injuries inside the organization’s Fraternity house at Pennsylvania State University. The family’s lawyer says the settlement opens the door for the Piazza family to move forward with claims against the more than two dozen members of the Fraternity, as well as possible claims further up the ladder at Penn State.

This tragedy is a sad illustration of the legal principle of liability, and how lawyers can follow a path of culpability and determine where action, policy, and expectation of safety play a role. When a senseless death such as Tim’s happens, the law may provide a means for the victim’s survivors to hold someone accountable for the actions and circumstances that lead to his death. We can take some solace in seeing that the Piazza family has found a measure of accountability from the fraternity organization, and, moving forward, possibly from the individuals directly involved in Tim’s death. This legal process won’t bring their son back, but it may help prevent other similar tragic deaths in the future.

Raised awareness, changed policies, and criminal claims against perpetrators will hopefully have a strong hand in shifting fraternity hazing culture on college campuses.