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Newsletter > September 2022 > "Appellate Court Upholds Dismissal of Fraternal Defendants"
Appellate Court Upholds Dismissal of Fraternal Defendants
Timothy M. Burke, Fraternal Law Partners, firstname.lastname@example.org
In July, a California Court of Appeals upheld the trial Court’s dismissal of a lawsuit against Alpha Epsilon Pi (“AEPi”), the national fraternity, the AEPi Foundation, the AEPi chapter at UCLA, and the local house corporation. The lawsuit grew out of an incident at the chapter house when a member of the chapter, Gideon Wolder, hosted his own birthday party and allowed several minors, including the Plaintiff, Justin Steagall, to join the party. During that party, a fight broke out in which Steagall was assaulted, allegedly by Mikey Leiderman. Leiderman was not a member of the fraternity, and not a party to the lawsuit.
What is particularly interesting about the decision is how careful the Court was in examining and differentiating the roles of the four fraternity-related entities.
From a legal standpoint, the critical issue in this case was California’s social host liability law, which provides, in part, that “no social host who furnishes alcoholic beverages to any person, may be held legally accountable for damages suffered by that person or for injury to the person or property of, or death of, any third person, resulting from the consumption of those beverages.” The law contains an exception making any parent, guardian, or another adult who, at his or her residence, knowingly furnishes alcoholic beverages to a minor, subject to potential legal accountability. But as the Court of Appeals pointed out, none of the fraternity defendants fall under that exception, as they are not a parent, guardian, or natural person.
While the Plaintiff tried to convince the Court of Appeals that “adult” includes corporate entities, as the Court noted, the Plaintiff was unable to provide any legal authority for that argument.
Similarly, the Court rejected Plaintiff’s claims of negligence and premises liability because “there is no general duty to act to protect others from a third party’s conduct” in the absence of a special relationship existing between the Defendant and the victim or aggressor. In determining whether such a special relationship exists, the Court noted that “the two most important considerations are foreseeability and the extent of the burden on the defendant, and in cases where the burden of preventing future harm is great, a high degree of foreseeability may be required.”
The Plaintiff struggled with those standards and the Court made short work of his argument:
Steagall off-handedly asserts that it doesn’t “take a rocket scientist to figure out that uncontrolled consumption of alcohol and drugs, in a party where a bunch of young men and women are drinking, getting high and partying, bad things such as violent attacks, fights, rapes, etc. are foreseeable.” We agree: this was not a matter of rocket science; it was a matter of evidence. While we are not cavalier about the sentiment underlying Steagall’s remark—that drinking and criminal behavior can occur at fraternity parties—there is no recognized special relationship between fraternity members who have been told not to engage in certain behaviors and partygoers that would permit imposing a greater or more burdensome duty on fraternity members solely because of their membership and training.
Steagall attempted to pursue a claim for vicarious liability that would have made the fraternity defendants liable for the conduct of Wolder, the individual member who hosted his own birthday party in the house. Again, the Court was unimpressed with Plaintiff’s argument. Unlike the Court’s own careful analysis of the four (4) fraternity defendants’ unique purposes, powers, and responsibilities, the Court simply held that “Steagall has not delineated how each individual fraternity defendant controlled Wolder or the UCLA chapter such that an agency relationship was created.”
In considering the potential for national fraternity liability, the Court relied on the prior California Court of Appeals decision, Barenborg vs. Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity, 33 Cal.App.5th 70 (2019), which noted local chapters were “virtually independent” from national, had complete control over their own activity, and had no authority to act for or to bind the national fraternity. The Court found that the AEPi Fraternity was in the same position as Sigma Alpha Epsilon in the Barenborg case. As such, it had no responsibility for the acts of Wolder.
The Court separately analyzed the potential vicarious liability for each of the fraternity entities. The Court found that the Foundation’s purpose was to promote the Fraternity’s values through leadership development, partnership with Jewish organizations, and providing support. It did not issue charters, rules, or policies applicable to the chapter, and had no regular communication with or ability to discipline the chapter or its members. It had no supervisory responsibility.
Similarly, the House Corporation did not control or supervise the chapter and its members in its day-to-day activities and had nothing to do with planning Wolder’s birthday party.
The strongest potential claim for vicarious liability may have been against the UCLA chapter. Wolder was an officer of the chapter serving on its judicial board. According to the Court’s decision, the chapter had even agreed that the potential for vicarious liability was there if: the chapter had authorized the commission of the tort or crime; Wolder had committed the tort or crime while performing a service on behalf of the chapter; or the chapter had ratified Wolder’s conduct after the fact. None of those conditions were met and the Court accepted Wolder’s explanation that the event was not a fraternity party; it was his own birthday party not sponsored by the chapter.
Perhaps the most important take-away from this decision is as it applies to the Fraternity’s Foundation. More and more frequently, it appears that plaintiffs’ counsels in other cases are naming fraternity foundations as a defendant. While those involved in the fraternity world may understand that fraternity foundations have no supervisory responsibility over chapters, it may be worth reviewing governing documents of fraternity foundations to make that crystal clear.
 Steagall v. Alpha Epsilon Pi Foundation, Inc., No. B308076, 2022 WL 2900455 (Cal. Ct. App. July 22, 2022). It must be noted that the decision is not to be published in the official reports and pursuant to California rule, courts and parties are prohibited from citing or relying on opinions which are not certified for publication.
 Cal. Civ. Code § 1714(c).
 Steagall, 2022 WL 2900455 at *6.
 Id. at *8.
 Id. at *10.
 Michael Osborne of the Cokinos|Young firm led the defense of the fraternity entities in this case.