Fraternity Hazing and University Liability

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Fraternity Hazing and University Liability

A fraternity ritual, also known as hazing, begins around 9 pm on February 2, 2017, at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity at Penn State University. At approximately 10:45 pm, after being forced to consume large amounts of alcohol, an intoxicated pledge, Timothy Piazza, falls down the basement steps at his fraternity house. Piazza, unconscious, is carried up the stairs by other pledges and placed on a couch.  It will be 24 hours before anyone seeks medical attention for Piazza.  At 1:23 am on Saturday, February 4, 2017, Piazza is pronounced dead.

Timeline of Timothy Piazza’s Final Hours

According to an article in USA Today, the following is a timeline of the events leading to Piazza’s death:

Feb. 2, 2017

8:56 p.m.: Pledges filed into Beta Theta Pi’s great hall, which had the lights turned off. Three brothers — Pledge Master Daniel Casey, Chapter President Brendan Young, and Ryan Burke — can be identified by a light source in the front of the room.

9:06 p.m.: Burke leads the pledges out of the great hall.

9:16 p.m.: Beta Theta Pi brothers send the first pledge through “the gauntlet,” a drinking-based obstacle course utilized in BTP’s hazing ritual.

9:21 p.m.: Timothy Piazza enters the gauntlet — Casey hands Piazza a handle of vodka, from which Piazza drinks heavily. Eight seconds later, Nicholas Kubera hands Piazza a beer, which Piazza shotguns.

10:31 p.m.: Pledges emerge from Beta Theta Pi’s basement and are visibly intoxicated.

10:40 p.m.: Beta Theta Pi brother Lars Kenyon assists Piazza, who was staggering and hunched over, to a couch in the great hall.

10:43 p.m.: Kubera encourages Piazza to stand up, and assists him in walking through the dining room and kitchen before returning to the living room. Piazza is visibly intoxicated during this endeavor.

10:45 p.m.: Piazza stands up, unassisted, and staggers toward the front door, which he fails to open. Piazza heads toward the basement steps, passing Jerry Coyne and Luke Visser on the way.

Time Unknown: Timothy Piazza falls down the basement steps. Cameras located in the basement did not record on the night in question, according to court documents.

10:47 p.m.: Piazza is carried back up the steps by Ryan Burke, Luke Visser, Greg Rizzo and Jonah Neuman. Piazza is limp and has a visible bruise on his abdomen. The brothers place Piazza on a couch. When Rizzo attempts to administer a sternum rub to Piazza, Piazza is unresponsive.

10:49 p.m.: Rizzo dumps liquid on Piazza’s face. Piazza does not respond. Following this Burke lifts Piazza’s arm, which immediately falls back to Piazza’s chest.

10:55 p.m.: Jonah Neuman retrieves a backpack, which he attaches to Piazza at 10:56 p.m.

11 p.m.: BTP brother Ryan Foster sits himself at Piazza’s feet in order to prevent Piazza from rolling over.

11:12 p.m.: Neuman also sits on Piazza’s legs to prevent him from moving.

11:14 p.m.: Kordel Davis, a newly initiated brother to Beta Theta Pi as of December 2016, enters the great hall. Davis approaches Piazza, leans over him and then turns to the other brothers in an animated fashion, pointing to his head and then to Piazza. When he testified, Davis told jurors he told the other brothers that Piazza needed to be taken to the hospital. Davis told jurors he screamed at the brothers, telling them they needed to get help.

11:15 p.m.: Neuman shoves Davis into a wall and tells him things are under control.

11:15 p.m.: Davis reiterates his concerns to Ed Gilmartin, the chapter’s vice president. In response, Gilmartin says Davis is crazy, claiming the other brothers have majors in kinesiology and biology.

11:25 p.m.: Daniel Casey, the pledge master, reenters the great hall to check on Timothy Piazza — he slaps Piazza three times in the face.

11:53 p.m.: Rizzo sends the following GroupMe message: “Also Tim Piazza might actually be a problem. He fell 15 feet down a flight of steps, hair-first, going to need help.”

Feb. 3, 2017

1 a.m.: Brothers in the room observe Piazza vomit and twitch on the couch. Piazza is surrounded by Ryan Foster, Jerry Coyne, and Joseph Ems, who “backpack” Piazza to prevent him from rolling onto his back if he passes out.

1:48 a.m.: Piazza rolls onto the floor. Ems, Foster and Matt Reinmund pick Piazza back up and slam him onto the couch.

1:50 a.m.: Ems strikes Piazza’s abdomen.

3:22 a.m.: Piazza attempts to regain his feet, and Coyne is nearby. Piazza falls backward and strikes his head on the hardwood floor — Coyne shakes him for movement, and then leaves the room.

3:54 a.m.: Piazza attempts to stand up again, but falls face first onto the floor.

4:59 a.m.: Piazza stands and staggers toward the lobby. Seconds later, he falls into an iron railing. He gets up again and attempts to go to the front door, but falls head first into the door.

5:08 a.m.: Piazza rests on his knees with his head buried in his hands. Then, he rolls to his side and clutches his abdomen.

5:15 a.m.: Beta Theta Pi brother Jonathan Martines walks downstairs for a drink of water, stepping over Piazza.

5:26 a.m.: Another BTP brother, Frederick Steimling, comes downstairs for water. He observes Piazza, and then walks Piazza to the great hall. Piazza falls down three steps. Steimling steps over Piazza and leaves him on the floor. Eventually, Piazza makes it into the great hall.

6:44 a.m.: Beta Theta Pi pledge Qobi Quainoo enters the great hall — Piazza is on the floor.

6:57 a.m.: Quainoo uses SnapChat to film Piazza.

7:18 a.m.: Piazza stands up again and staggers toward the basement steps.

Approximately 10 a.m.: Daniel Erickson and Kyle Pecci search for Piazza — eventually, Erickson discovers him behind a bar. Erickson, Pecci and another brother then carry Piazza upstairs and place him on a couch in the great hall. Following this, brothers shook an unconscious Piazza. The brothers also covered Piazza with a blanket, wiped his face and attempted to dress him.

10:48 a.m.: Beta Theta Pi brother Ryan McCann dials 911. McCann never tells the dispatcher that Piazza fell down the stairs the previous night.

Feb. 4, 2017

1:23 a.m.: Timothy Piazza is pronounced dead at the Hershey Medical Center.

Is Penn State University liable for Timothy Piazza’s death?

The horrific facts surrounding Piazza’s death give rise to the question of whether colleges and universities can be held liable for injuries sustained at fraternity houses. Universities typically argue that they do not have a duty to protect students from acts of other individuals and cannot be held liable for acts of a fraternity. Whether a university is responsible for injuries sustained at a sorority or fraternity depends on the specific facts of the case and state law.

For example, the University of Delaware was recently held liable for injuries sustained by a student during a hazing incident because the court held the university had a duty to protect students from hazing as detailed in the university’s policy.  The court also found that the university was aware of the hazing based on communications between the university and the fraternity but the university failed to take steps to prevent the continued hazing.

The Indiana Supreme Court held that a local university could not be held responsible for the injuries sustained by a pledge because the university was merely the landlord of the fraternity property. The university gave up control of the property in favor of the fraternity and the university’s responsibilities did not include oversight of the fraternity house. In this case in Indiana, there was no recovery for the injured student.

Can you pursue a claim against your university for injuries related to a hazing incident?

Whether you are successful in a claim against your university for injuries related to a hazing incident will depend on many things, including:

  • The facts of your case;
  • Your school’s policies related to student misconduct, student organizations and hazing; and
  • Any state or federal law regarding hazing or the enforcement of university policies

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