- ALLEGED HAZING INJURY DRAWS LAWSUIT
- WRONGFUL EXPULSION
- WE MAY HAVE DONE IT WRONG THE FIRST TIME, BUT YOU ARE STILL GUILTY
- DELTA KAPPA EPSILON SUES COLGATE
Newsletter > March 2005 > "ALLEGED HAZING INJURY DRAWS LAWSUIT"
ALLEGED HAZING INJURY DRAWS LAWSUIT
Tim Burke, Manley Burke, firstname.lastname@example.org
Chase Coslett, once a pledge of the Beta Eta Chapter of Sigma Nu Fraternity at Indiana University, filed suit in February of this year in the Monroe County Circuit Court in Indiana against the fraternity.1 Coslett alleges that he was brutally hazed by members of the fraternity, including by one member, who Coslett claims dropped out of school but was “paid to participate in acts of violence and hazing on the pledges.”
The complaint alleges that after Coslett was required to perform taxi services for active members of the fraternity he was ordered to report back to the chapter house. There, he and the other pledges were taken one at a time to a basement room, sat in a chair and forced to answer questions. When he answered a question wrong, Coslett claims “he was picked up by his feet by the brothers who then forced his head into a barrel of ice water for several seconds.” When he answered a second question wrong, he was picked up “by his neck, slammed against the wall, and held there by his neck” before he was slammed back into his chair. When he failed to answer a third question, he was allegedly shoved across the wet floor of the room into a pile of trash containing broken beer bottles, light bulbs and standing water.
In that final incident, Coslett states that his hand was cut and required medical attention, which representatives of the Chapter repeatedly denied. When he was finally taken to the hospital, he was instructed to lie about how the injury occurred.
Coslett claims that following the incident the Chapter President admitted during a University judicial proceeding that the injury had occurred while Coslett was being hazed. Subsequently, Coslett says he received threats of physical violence from members of the fraternity and that an Indiana University police officer “instructed Coslett he should transfer to another school due to threats of physical violence by the brothers of Sigma Nu.” Coslett subsequently transferred to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
Coslett’s suit names as defendants the National Sigma Nu Fraternity, the Sigma Nu Alumni Association of Indiana University, Inc., which owns the house, the Beta Eta Chapter, and ten individuals, including the Chapter Advisor. The other individual defendants include the President, another officer of the Chapter and seven active members of the fraternity. The suit claims that the individual members were “acting as agents of the national fraternity in committing the acts of hazing and violence.” The suit also argues that there was a conspiracy among the local Chapter and its active members to engage in hazing and battery, both of which are crimes under Indiana law. It further claims that the officers of the Chapter, as well as the owner of the fraternity house, the Sigma Nu Alumni Association, had a duty to protect Coslett from hazing and battery and failed to fulfill that duty.
A complaint, like the one filed in this case, is simply the first step in a lawsuit. The allegations stated in a complaint have not been proven to be true. The plaintiff will be obliged in court to prove any of the allegations contained in the complaint which are not admitted by the defendants. Each defendant has the opportunity to hire their own counsel. In a case like this it is quite possible that is exactly what will be necessary because it may very well develop that certain defendants have conflicts with one another. For example, National Sigma Nu will undoubtedly defend on the basis that it didn’t know about the activities involved, hadn’t approved them and, in fact, has policies specifically against hazing which were violated by the members of the Chapter. They may seek to defend, in part, by arguing that members broke the rules of the National Sigma Nu. The Chapter could seek to defend by arguing that it did not know about the alleged hazing. Though, if officers of the Chapter were in fact involved, particularly the President of the Chapter as alleged in the complaint, that will be a hard sell. The Alumni Corporation which owns the house, may offer the same kind of defense. Given that typically house corporations are not substantially different than landlords and do not control the conduct of the occupants of the house, the House Corporation may have a point.
There is likely to be some liability insurance available in this case and one or more insurance companies may provide insurance defense counsel for some or all of the defendants. Undoubtedly, they will do so under a “reservation of rights.” That is, the insurance company may advise their client that they will defend against the claims of negligence contained in the lawsuit, but not against the intentional or criminal acts claimed in the suit. Such a reservation of rights by the insurance company will require the defendants to hire separate counsel to represent them on the other claims in the litigation.
It would appear from the complaint that the sole claim against the Chapter Advisor is based in negligence – that the Advisor failed to fulfill his duty to prevent acts of violence against Coslett. There is no claim that the Advisor engaged in any of the alleged hazing or had any knowledge that it was going on. Thus, based on the complaint, the Chapter Advisor should be fully covered by any liability policy maintained by the fraternity.
In light of the serious injuries and deaths that have occurred in some hazing incidents, a cut hand would appear to be a minor matter. But, if it is true that the conduct alleged in the complaint is what caused the injury, the facts are going to sound very bad to any jury. Plaintiff’s counsel in this case knows that and as a result, in addition to the claims for compensatory damages, that is those damages that are necessary to fully compensate the plaintiff for the cost of medical care, the cost of relocating to another school, and pain and suffering, Coslett is also seeking punitive damages. Punitive damages are what they sound like. They are intended to punish a defendant for wrongful conduct and may be awarded over and above what is necessary to compensate the plaintiff for actual damages. Generally, liability insurance does not cover punitive awards. Thus, should a jury award punitive damages against any of the defendants, those defendants may be responsible to pay punitive damages out of their own pockets.
Hazing is wrong. It is no sign of brotherhood or sisterhood to physically brutalize a pledge in some sort of a bizarre welcoming into the fraternity. Today, hazing is a criminal act in most states. Striking a person is battery or assault, depending upon how the various states may define the crime. Thus, those who engage in the kind of conduct described in this suit may find themselves facing both criminal charges and civil liability.
National fraternity organizations, whether affiliated through NPC, NIC or NPHC, uniformly have set out rules prohibiting hazing and take instances of hazing very seriously. When hazing is found, it is not unusual for a national fraternity to take serious fraternal disciplinary action against the culprits up to and including termination of individual members, and even the loss of a chapter charter.
Too frequently, misguided chapter members will argue that “we were hazed so we should haze.” “It is a tradition.” Such excuses are no excuse at all for the conduct alleged in this complaint. Such conduct places not only the chapter involved in ill repute, but the national and indeed, the entire Greek world. Responsible chapter leaders will ensure that such activities do not occur, either in the house or elsewhere.
1 Chase Coslett v. Sigma Nu Fraternity, Inc., et al., Monroe Circuit Court, State of Indiana, Case No. 53CO1-O5O2-CT-00271, filed February 9, 2005.