Fraternity Hazing: Legal Liability

By David Randolph Smith  Dec. 16, 2008 5:38a

Legal Liability for Hazing

The firm has handled a number of personal injury suits against national fraternities and universities for serious injuries caused by hazing. All cases have been settled. Despite a well-developed body of law and statutes that create legal liability for hazing, many organizations unlawfully continue to haze students. Lawyers Weekly USA recently published an article confirming this trend: Fraternity Lawsuits Becoming More Common (March 14, 2005).

In 1994 I represented a college student at Tennessee State University who had been brutally hazed as part of his initiation to a Black fraternity. His name was Wardell Pride. He was a courageous young man who broke the code of silence and exposed the very sinister and sadistic side of college hazing. His story and the case was covered by the New York Times. "Lawsuit Shatters Code of Silence Over Hazing at Black Fraternities"(New York Times, December 21, 1994). His case was settled and he has gone on to lead a happy and successful life, including playing professional tennis.

Quite a different road and result for Brian Nichols. You may have heard or read about Brian Nichols -- the man who went on a shooting spree at a courthouse in Georgia was sentenced to prison last week (a life sentence without parole). Nichols shot and killed the Superior Court judge in his case, Rowland Barnes, and court reporter Julie Brandau, in Barnes’ courtroom. He shot and killed Fulton County sheriff’s deputy Hoyt Teasley on the street outside the courthouse, and U.S. Customs agent David Wilhelm later that night in Buckhead. In his defense his attorneys cited to his terrible childhood and to something that caught my attention and was all too familiar. Nichols had been the victim of a brutal hazing episode at a Black fraternity in college in 1990: "The witness said Nichols was subjected to brutal beatings during hazings when he was a fraternity pledge in the early 1990s at Newberry College in South Carolina. :

  • "Terrence Tyson, a member of the fraternity, said Nichols complained to him about the brutality of the paddlings, which went on for weeks. “It wasn’t normal hazing,” Tyson said. “It was abnormal. It was too rough.” He testified that Nichols complained about bruises and, at one time, went to the school nurse go get ointment to treat his wounds. He said Nichols said to him: ” ‘Man ya’ll are beating me like slaves,’ which we were. It was real violent.” Nichols eventually videotaped the hazings and gave the tape to school authorities. He was blackballed and not made a member of the fraternity, after he’d been led to believe he was being accepted. “They [fraternity brothers] just beat him and threw him out to the curb,” Tyson said."

Any fraternity or sorority that hazes pledges or members may face serious legal liability (civil and potentially criminal liability) for injuries or damages that result from such abuse. Indiividual members of the fraternity or sorority and the college or university may also be held legally responsible.

Here are a few examples:

  • “In perhaps the most prominent case to date, a chapter of Phi Gamma Delta was criminally
    indicted for last year's alcohol-poisoning death of Scott Krueger, a Massachusetts Institute of
    Technology Freshman. Stung, MIT has ordered all Freshmen onto campus beginning in 2001 and is
    putting resident assistants in off-campus fraternity houses.” [MIT subsequently settled with
    Scott Krueger’s parents for six million dollars].
    Fraternities Come Clean, CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR (Tuesday, October 13, 1998)
  • “Kansas State University suspended Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity after a pledge -- an initiate
    seeking full membership-- suffered kidney damage when beaten with fists, paddles and canes in
    an apparent hazing ritual. His father said the victim had dropped out of the initiation process
    for the same fraternity last year after being injured.”
    “During the last school year, at an initiation at Texas A&M University, a pledge being given a
    "wedgie" was lifted off his feet by the waistband of his underwear. One of his testicles was
    ruptured and had to be surgically removed.”
    Frats Under Fire: Putting An End To Excesses, CHICAGO SUN-TIMES, (Sunday, April 26, 1998).
  • Last year, a pledge at Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity at Southwest Texas State University in San
    Marcos was bludgeoned to death following a drunken party.
    Fraternities Try To Change Beer-Soaked Image, THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS (Wednesday,
    September 27, 2000)
  • A University of Nebraska university student sustained severe injuries during fraternity hazing
    when he was handcuffed to a radiator, forced to drink and fell from a third story building.
    Knoll v. Board of Regents of University of Nebraska, 601 N.W.2d 757 (Neb. 1999).
  • “Saunders, who has dealt with allegations of beatings at Virginia Military Institute and a fraternity hazing incident involving a cattle prod at W&L in the last few months, agreed."It's
    been a strange spring around here is all I can say."
    ROANOKE TIMES & WORLD NEWS, (Wednesday, May 27, 1998).
  • Critical injuries to a student who fell from a second story window at SIGMA NU’s Washington
    State University frat house in 1998. PORTLAND OREGONIAN (Saturday, May 9, 1998);
  • Assault and battery by three SIGMA NU members at Washington & Lee at a fraternity party in
    April, 1998. ROANOKE TIMES & WORLD NEWS, (Wednesday, May 27, 1998);
  • In April, 2000 the SIGMA NU fraternity at Colorado State University was shut down
    indefinitely due to alcohol poisoning of a pledge at SIGMA NU and hospitalization of the
    student. DENVER POST (Saturday, March 25, 2000, and March 29, 2000);
  • In 1996: The University of Alabama suspended SIGMA NU for alleged incidents of physical
    and mental abuse during hazing of new members. THE ATLANTA JOURNAL AND CONSTITUTION,
    (Wednesday, April 5, 2000).
  • In February, 2000 firefighters at Washington State University in February rushed inside the
    burning SIGMA NU fraternity house and found a member bound with duct tape and trapped in a
    room. Police concluded it was a case of hazing, ASSOCIATED PRESS NEWSWIRES. (Friday, April 14,
  • In November 2000 - Six SIGMA NU pledges were arrested for allegedly stealing hundreds of
    10Halloween decorations from 40 families. STATE TIMES/MORNING ADVOCATE, (Saturday, March
    24, 2001);
  • The loss of an eye in a fight at the SIGMA NU frat house at the University of Delaware.
    Marshall v. The University of Delaware, 1986 WL 11566 (Del. Super., Oct. 8, 1986).
  • Death of a SIGMA NU pledge on Hell Night from drinking at the University of South
    Carolina. Ballou v. Sigma Nu General Fraternity, 352 S.E.2d 488 (S.C. Ct. App., 1986).
  • Death of a University of Missouri student in SIGMA NU initiation rites from consumption of
    alcohol containing green peas. Nisbet v. Bucher, 949 S.W.2d 111 (Mo. Ct. App., 1997).

Tennessee law prohibits hazing:

49-7-123 Hazing prohibited.
(a) As used in this section, unless the context otherwise requires:
(1) "Hazing" means any intentional or reckless act in Tennessee on or off the property of any
higher education institution by one (1) student acting alone or with others which is directed
against any other student, that endangers the mental or physical health or safety of that
student, or which induces or coerces a student to endanger such student's mental or physical
health or safety. "Hazing" does not include customary athletic events or similar contests or
competitions, and is limited to those actions taken and situations created in connection with
initiation into or affiliation with any organization; and
(2) "Higher education institution" means a public or private college, community college or
(b) Each higher education institution shall adopt a written policy prohibiting hazing by any
student or organization operating under the sanction of the institution. The policy shall be
distributed or made available to each student at the beginning of each school year. Time shall
be set aside during orientation to specifically discuss the policy and its ramifications as a
criminal offense and the institutional penalties that may be imposed by the higher education
Tennessee Code Annotated § 49-7-123 (2000).

Case-Law Supporting Legal Liability of University and Fraternity

  • Coghlan v. Beta Theta Pi Fraternity, 987 P.2d 300 (Idaho,1999)
    (Allegations by student at state university that university employees were
    present to provide supervision at fraternity party attended by student, knew or
    should have known that fraternity was serving alcohol to underage students and
    should have taken action, and knew or should have known that student was
    intoxicated, stated claim against university for breach of its assumed duty to
    exercise reasonable care to safeguard student from criminal acts of fraternity in
    providing alcohol to underage patrons in action brought after student was
    injured in fall from fire escape of her sorority house while intoxicated);
  • Morrison v. Kappa Alpha Psi, 738 So.2d 1105, 1114 (La. Ct. App. 1999)(State
    university failed to exercise reasonable care and, thus, breached duty owed to
    university student, who was allegedly injured in fraternity hazing incident, given
    evidence that university had known of prior hazing incidents but failed to
    adequately investigate them. Court found special relationship under the specific
    facts of hazing. Evidence further supported finding that national fraternity
    organization breached its duty to protect against and prevent hazing by local
  • Davidson v. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 42 N.C.App. 544,
    543 S.E.2d 920, 152 Ed. Law Rep. 336 (N.C. Ct. App., 2001) (State university,
    which advised and educated cheerleading squad about safety, voluntarily
    undertook duty of care to cheerleader who was injured while practicing
  • Furek v. The University of Delaware, 594 A.2d 506 (Del. 1991) (University had
    duties of protection, control and supervision and had assumed duty to control
    fraternity and was therefore subject to liability for hazing of university student);
    • Knoll v. Board Of Regents of the University of Nebraska, 258 Neb. 1, 601
    N.W.2d 757 (1999). “Fraternity members' actions in handcuffing and abducting
    student were reasonably foreseeable, given prior incidents of hazing on campus
    and incidents of alcohol abuse and other law violations involving members of
    fraternity to which injured student had pledged; thus, university owed student a
    duty to protect”);
  • Nova Southeastern University, Inc., v. Gross, 758 So.2d 86 (Fla. 2000
    (Graduate student brought negligence action against university for injuries she
    sustained when she was sexually assaulted while doing off-campus, mandatory
    internship; held that university could be found liable in tort where it assigned
    student to internship site which it knew to be unreasonably dangerous, but gave
    no warning, or inadequate warning, to student and student was subsequently
    injured while participating in internship);
  • Sharkey v. Board of Regents of University of Nebraska, 260 Neb. 166, 615
    N.W.2d 889, 146 Ed. Law Rep. 1103 (Neb, 2000) (State university owed duty of
    care to take reasonable steps to protect husband and wife, who were students at
    university, from attack of husband by third student which occurred during
    confrontation arising from third student's alleged harassment of wife, where
    university was aware of both third student's specific behavior, and of criminal
    activity on its campus).
  • Quinn v. Sigma Rho Chapter of Beta Theta Pi Fraternity, 507 N.E.2d 1193 (Ill.
    Ct. App., 1987) ( held that fraternity had legal duty to refrain from requiring
    participation in dangerous act of drinking after intoxication and breach of that
    duty created cause of action in common-law negligence);
  • Marshall v. The University of Delaware, 1986 WL 11566 (Del.Super., Oct. 8,
    1986) :
    “It is the University's duty to establish regulations (or to issue orders) to govern
    the conduct of fraternities where such conduct involves an unreasonable risk of
    injury and to discipline those fraternities that fail to comply with those
    regulations (or orders). In the present controversy, therefore, the University was
    under a duty to ensure by regulation (or order) that Sigma Nu discharge its duty
    of control. It was the University's duty, in other words, to ensure that Sigma Nu
    adopt and enforce standards of conduct to control the Sigma Nu membership”
    “ In the present controversy, the foreseeable scope of risk created by the
    University's conduct (in not controlling Sigma Nu) is defined primarily by the
    conduct of the individual members of Sigma Nu. The foreseeable scope of risk
    would have extended to wherever members of Sigma Nu, as members of Sigma
    Nu, would likely go. It is this Court's opinion, therefore, that a reasonable
    person could conclude that anyone within the University's community was
    within the foreseeable scope of risk created by the University's conduct. Because
    the plaintiff was within the University community on the night he sustained his
    injury, one could reasonably conclude that he was within the foreseeable scope
    of risk created by the University's failure (if such is established) to discharge its
    duty to control Sigma Nu..”
  • Marshall v. The University of Delaware, 1986 WL 11566 (Del.Super., Oct. 8,
    1986), rev’d as to the University because Plaintiff was a not a student at the
    University, but affirmed as to the liability of national SIGMA NU due to control
    of local chapter and rights of inspection and supervision. A.2d 370 (Del. 1993);
  • Walker v. Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity (RHO Chapter), 706 So.2d 525, 124 Ed.
    Law Rep. 478 (La.App. 1997) (student at Southern University in Baton Rouge, LA
    sued university for injuries suffered while beaten in hazing incident);
  • Nisbet v. Bucher, 949 S.W.2d 111 (Mo. Ct. App. 1997) (Wrongful death claim
    stated against SIGMA NU);
  • Oja v. Grand Chapter of Theta Chi Fraternity Inc., 255 A.D.2d 781, 680 N.Y.S.2d
    277, (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1998) ( claim recognized against fraternity for parents of
    fraternity pledge who died after consuming excessive amounts of alcohol as part
    of hazing ritual at fraternity);
  • Ballou v. Sigma Nu General Fraternity, 352 S.E.2d 488 (S.C. Ct. App., 1986)
    (recognizing claim for death of a SIGMA NU pledge on Hell Night from drinking
    at the University of South Carolina; holding SIGMA NU national responsible);
  • Landmark Ins. Co. v. Cincinnati Ins. Co.,2001 WL 1216986 (Ohio Ct. App., Oct
    12, 2001)(Kent State University student settled case injuries in a fraternity
    incident at Kent State for $1.6 million);
  • See generally Mumford, Who is Responsible for Fraternity Related Injuries on
    American College Campuses? 17 J. CONTEMP. HEALTH L. & POL'Y 737
    (Summer 2001).
  • Nieswand v. Cornell University, 692 F. Supp. 1464, 1471 (N.D. N.Y. 1988) (Court
    held that implied contract could arise between university and admitted student
    and that “the tights and obligations of the parties as contained in the university’s
    bulletins become part of the parties’ contract.”).
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