Indiana Supreme Court Affirms Dismissal of Claims in Yost v. Wabash, et al.

In a closely watched case, the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed summary judgment in favor of Wabash College and Phi Kappa Psi, dismissing all claims against these two defendants.  Brian Yost, a Wabash freshman and Phi Kappa Psi pledge, alleged that he was injured in September 2007 during a hazing incident inside the chapter house.  Mr. Yost sued several parties including the national Phi Kappa Psi fraternity.  The claims against the national fraternity rested upon two theories of liability, namely (i) breach of an assumed duty of care to protect its pledges and (ii) an agency theory in which the chapter acted as an agent of the national fraternity rendering the national fraternity liable for the negligence of the chapter.  Phi Kappa Psi moved for summary judgment.

Yost resisted summary judgment asserting that because the national fraternity promulgated behavioral guidelines, engaged in educational outreach regarding alcohol abuse and hazing, and made efforts to discourage hazing, the national fraternity could be found to have assumed a duty or appointed the chapter as its agent to ensure the success of its educational programming.  The trial court granted Phi Psi’s motion for judgment, a decision upheld by the court of appeals.

The Indiana Supreme Court accepted the case for further review, handing down its decision on February 13, 2014.  In affirming the decisions of the trial court and court of appeals, the Indiana Supreme Court confirmed that by simply creating behavioral expectations and educating members, a national fraternity does not become a guarantor of its members’ compliance with these aspirational goals.  While the decision is consistent with a long line of Indiana case law, the decision is important in light of another pending Indiana case, Smith v. Delta Tau Delta, et al.  In Smith, a different panel of the court of appeals denied summary judgment to Delta Tau Delta on very similar facts, holding that educational programs and a retrospective enforcement mechanism could create liability under assumption of duty and agency liability theories.  Delta Tau Delta appealed the Smith decision to the Indiana Supreme Court, though the Court has not yet decided to accept transfer.  Fraternal Law Partners filed an amicus brief in support of transfer on behalf of several women’s groups.

Please click below for an article from The Indiana Lawyer exploring the case in more detail.

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