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Newsletter > November 2012 > "Court Dismisses Sexual Assault Case"
Court Dismisses Sexual Assault Case
Trish Walsh, Brad Stanford
According to her complaint, on Halloween night in 2008, a 21-year-old woman and former Oregon State University student was sexually assaulted by a member of the Oregon Beta Chapter of Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity in Corvallis, Oregon (“Local Chapter”), in a closed bedroom during a costume party at the chapter house. Her assailant, a male sophomore Oregon State University student with a beer bottle costume, was later prosecuted and convicted of first degree rape and sexual abuse.
After the conclusion of the criminal trial, the victim sought more than $1.2 million in emotional distress damages and medical expenses not just from the perpetrator but also from the Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity, Inc. (“National Fraternity”) and the owner of the chapter house (“House Corporation”). [See Scheffel v. Oregon Beta of Phi Kappa Psi Ass’n et al., Oregon Circuit Court for Benton County Case No. 10-10510, filed Sept. 14, 2010.] She alleged a panoply of claims, based on theories of premises liability, failure to control, liquor liability, negligence per se, and agency. Later, she broadened her complaint to include the Local Chapter as a defendant and added a direct negligence claim against the National Fraternity based on an “assumption of duty” theory.
After protracted discovery, including depositions of numerous attendees of the Halloween party, current and former members of the Local Chapter who planned and organized the event, the university’s Greek Life coordinator, and the fraternity’s Executive Director, as well as exhaustive document review, including event registration materials that were submitted by the Local Chapter in advance of the Halloween party, the fraternity-related entities asked the court to dismiss all claims against them on summary judgment.
In July 2012, Benton County Circuit Court Judge Locke A. Williams did just that.
At the hearing on defendants’ motion for summary judgment, the fraternity’s attorneys highlighted the fact that the plaintiff’s evidence against the National Fraternity and Local Chapter was merely generalized and outdated data regarding the prevalence of underage drinking at colleges and in sororities and fraternities in general—despite the undisputed evidence that alcohol was not served at the Halloween party at issue and that the event was conducted in a reasonably safe manner, which included the presence of paid security guards, sober monitors, a guest list, an inspection by the campus Inter-Fraternity Council, and a system of checking in “bring your own” beer for those over the age of twenty-one who presented identification.
In addition, there was no evidence that the Local Chapter or National Fraternity knew or had reason to know of any unreasonable risk of sexual assault to party attendees; the sexual assault committed by the perpetrator during the party was the first and only known assault to have involved any member of the Local Chapter in its history.
Based on the facts of the case, the court declined to find that the National Fraternity gratuitously assumed a duty to control the Local Chapter’s members by offering education and guidance to its local chapters on the responsible use of alcohol and sexual assault prevention.
The court granted summary judgment to defendants on all claims. The decision is currently pending appeal.