Perhaps a series of Greek letters gives you a sense of nostalgia… Phi Mu… Alpha Phi Alpha… Kappa Alpha Theta… Kappa Kappa Gamma… Tau Kappa Epsilon… if one of these looks familiar to you, you might be a member of one of the most popular sororities or fraternities in the nation.
Joining a fraternity or sorority is a dream of lots of college students, either because they want to carry on a parent’s legacy, they see the parties and activities at their school and it looks like fun, or they love the idea of forming life-long friendships and the sisterhood or brotherhood that comes with Greek life.
But for most of these groups, the initiation process involves hazing, or rituals that involve risk or pain.
The organization StopHazing.org specifies three components of hazing:
- It happens in a group context.
- It involves behavior that is humiliating, degrading, or endangering.
- It happens regardless of whether the individual is willing to participate.
It should be noted that hazing isn’t unique to college fraternities and sororities; it happens in high schools, workplaces, and even the military.
However, it’s most prevalent on college campuses for students involved in Greek life, sports teams, or other clubs and organizations. StopHazing.org says that 55% of college students involved in these types of organizations report having experienced hazing.
Unfortunately, although the “purpose” of hazing is to test a person’s loyalty, dedication and willingness to “take one for the team”, so to speak, the results can be deadly. Certainly, a group of students who engage in hazing doesn’t intend for anyone to be injured or to die, but rituals gone wrong can lead to tragic results.
Foltz v. Bowling Green State University
June, 2022: Shari and Cory Foltz filed a lawsuit against Bowling Green State University in Ohio following the death of their son, Stone. Stone was participating in an off-campus fraternity initiation when he died from alcohol poisoning.
Stone was forced to drink an entire liter of hard liquor in 18 minutes.
The Foltzes claim that the school “turned a blind eye to hazing” and encouraged students to join Greek organizations. They further claim that the school was aware of the type of hazing conducted by Stone’s fraternity, Phi Kappa Alpha (“Pike”), and did nothing to prevent it.
Eight members of the Pike fraternity at Bowling Green were criminally indicted and served sentences ranging from house arrest and probation to 28 days in jail related to their roles in the incident. Some pleaded guilty to reckless homicide and hazing, others to obstructing justice, and one admitted to tampering with evidence. Two were convicted of misdemeanor hazing and violating underage drinking laws. The fraternity was expelled from campus.
Stone’s parents intend to use the settlement money to support a foundation they created to end hazing.
Santulli v. multiple defendants
October, 2021: Danny Santulli, an 18-year-old student at the University of Missouri, died during a “pledge father reveal” for the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. Surveillance video showed that Danny was forced to consume beer through a funnel in between drinking a 1.75-liter bottle of vodka. After drinking for two hours, he fell backwards. The fraternity brothers dragged a barely-conscious Danny to a car to take him to the hospital. When he arrived at the hospital, his lips were blue, he was not breathing and was in cardiac arrest. Danny’s blood-alcohol content (BAC) was 0.46, which is nearly fatal.
Danny survived, but he has serious brain damage and is unable to walk or talk and has lost vision in both eyes.
The Santulli family settled lawsuits with 22 defendants, including the fraternity. His mother’s lawsuits included claims that fraternity members observed Danny’s condition, including that he was unresponsive and his lips were blue, and no one called 911 for emergency assistance.
Bogenberger v. Pi Kappa Alpha Corporation et al.
November, 2018: A lawsuit for the death of David Bogenberger is said to be the largest amount ever in a hazing case, awarding $14 million to his family.
David was a fraternity pledge for Pi Kappa Alpha at Northern Illinois University in 2012. One evening, his fraternity and members of various sororities hosted an event where the pledges had to ask their “Greek mother and father” (elder members of the organization) questions, followed by drinking vodka.
The following morning, David’s body was discovered in the frat house. His BAC for the previous night was 0.43%.
David’s parents filed lawsuits against the fraternity and sorority members who were at the event, along with the local and national chapters of the fraternity. Nearly two dozen Phi Kappa Alpha brothers pleaded guilty to charges related to his death.
The Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the national organization could not be held liable for the actions of the local fraternity. It was dismissed from the suit.
However, a settlement agreement was reached and $14 million in damages was awarded to David’s parents and siblings.
Strong-Fargas v. Alpha Kappa Alpha
September, 2002: The police told Kristin High’s mother that Kristin’s cause of death was accidental drowning.
But Kristen and her friend, Kenitha Saafir, seemingly did not die by accident. They were attending an event hosted by the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority of Cal State L.A., where the women were students.
Kristen’s mother filed a lawsuit that claimed that her daughter and Kenitha died during a hazing ritual. She alleged that the pledges were worked to exhaustion every night. On the night they died, Kristen and Kenitha were at the beach doing calisthenics when the sisters ordered them to walk backward into the ocean. Kenitha was knocked down by a strong wave, and Kristen knew Kenitha couldn’t swim. Kristen swam to help her friend and both women were dragged beneath high waves and drowned.
Although the sorority denied that the group played a role in Kristen’s and Kenitha’s deaths, rumors of hazing began to circulate. Both Kristen’s and Kenitha’s families settled lawsuits with the sorority for undisclosed amounts. (source)
State laws against hazing
The only states that do not have any laws against hazing are Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, New Mexico, Alaska and Hawaii.
Hazing can be a felony if it results in death or serious injury in the following states: Florida, Texas, California, Utah, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and New Jersey.
The extent to which hazing deaths and injuries are prosecuted depends on the state. There’s a range of penalties for these incidents.
Civil lawsuits for hazing injuries and deaths
Regardless of whether someone is criminally charged as related to a hazing injury or death, there’s always the possibility of a civil lawsuit, which is an option in any state if the person or entity that caused the injury was negligent.
The basis for personal injury law or a wrongful death lawsuit is that a plaintiff (the injured person or their survivor) is entitled to recover damages—be made financially whole—from a defendant whose negligence caused their injury.
Negligence is when the defendant fails to exercise the reasonable and appropriate level of care in the circumstances. In other words, if the defendant’s action (or inaction) is not what a reasonable person would do in the same or similar situation, and the plaintiff is harmed as a result, then the defendant might be liable.
Who is the defendant in a hazing case?
As with any lawsuit, that depends.
The most likely defendants in a fraternity or sorority hazing case could include:
- The college or university, if the administration was aware of dangerous hazing activities and failed to take measures to protect students;
- The sorority or fraternity (or other organization) for allowing and encouraging dangerous behavior by members; or
- Individual sorority or fraternity members, if they selected the dangerous activities, forced pledges to participate, or failed to call for help if a pledge was in obvious distress.
There could be other defendants, particularly if the state has dram shop laws or social host liability, which could mean that a person or business who served alcohol to a person who was underage or obviously intoxicated could be liable for injuries under certain circumstances.
These types of cases can be complex, particularly because there could be several defendants. A college or university, or a fraternity or sorority organization, could have deep pockets to make a lawsuit “disappear”, but if you have suffered an injury or lost a family member from being hazed, you deserve to be compensated.