- Hazing Legislation and Case Updates
- Kentucky Passes Campus Due Process Protection Act
- IRS Update: New Electronic Requirements and Developments
- Eighth Circuit: No Liability Due to “Efficient Intervening Causes ”
- Lawsuit Filed against Western Kentucky University and Various Fraternal Defendants: Potential Effects on National and Chapter Liability
Newsletter > June 2022 > "Eighth Circuit: No Liability Due to “Efficient Intervening Causes ”"
Eighth Circuit: No Liability Due to “Efficient Intervening Causes ”
Christopher Wheeler was a Creighton University student participating in the rush and initiation activities of Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity when he entered Teresa Spagna’s dorm room and slashed her throat with a pocketknife. Phi Kappa Psi was in the midst of a probationary period when Wheeler found himself belligerently drunk in the early morning hours of February 11, 2017, after taking part in the activities that were encouraged during the Fraternity’s “hell week.”
Teresa Spanga’s dorm room was unlocked when Wheeler wandered into her room around 1:00 a.m. The two parties did not know each other, and Spanga asked Wheeler to leave. Spanga attempted to hand Wheeler his keys as he turned to leave, and that is when he suddenly turned and slashed Spanga’s throat, leaving a 5-inch wound. Spanga survived the attack. Wheeler pled no contest to second-degree assault charges.
Spanga sued the National Fraternity, the Chapter, and multiple individual representatives of the Fraternity for negligence.2 Spanga alleged that the Defendants proximately caused her injuries, owing her various duties and subsequently breaching them by failing to ensure compliance with the terms of the probationary period. Spanga also asserted that her assault was foreseeable and would not have occurred but for Defendants’ actions.
The trial court did not address whether there was a duty owed to Spanga because of the “efficient intervening cause,” which the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals characterized as “new and independent conduct of a third person…breaking the causal connection between the original conduct and the injury.” But the appellate court nonetheless affirmed the trial court’s decision, finding that Spanga failed to allege both that her injuries were reasonably foreseeable and proximately caused by Defendants’ action(s). Here, the risk of attack was not considered foreseeable because Defendants’ actions did not “have a direct relationship to the harm that occurred, which is a requirement under Nebraska law.”3
The court also found a lack of vicarious liability on behalf of the National Fraternity as a principal because there was no negligence on behalf of its the Chapter/agents. Moreover, the Defendants could not be defined as social hosts under the Nebraska Minor Alcoholic Liquor Liability Act because the Act requires negligence of an intoxicated minor causing property damage or injury, and Wheeler’s criminal conviction precluded negligent commissions.
The Chapter, National Organization, and named members of Phi Kappa Psi avoided liability for the injuries that Wheeler inflicted on Spanga. The court reasoned some of its holdings on the fact that Spanga’s complaint failed to allege any knowledge on behalf of the Defendants that Wheeler was capable of this kind of conduct. Certainly, no fraternity—let alone a fraternity on probation—should engage in behavior that would harm its members or members of the community as a whole, but it is impossible to always know what individual members will do (or what they are capable of doing) to others.
1 Hanna Putoff is a summer legal intern and she previous served as our planning co-op/intern before starting law school.
2 Spanga v. Phi Kappa Psi, Inc., 30 F.4th 710 (8th Cir. 2022).
3 Id. Nebraska’s pleading requirements require specificity, not simply generality.