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Newsletter > May 2019 > "Lawsuit Alleges Disturbing Hazing"
Lawsuit Alleges Disturbing Hazing
Katherine Schoepflin, Manley Burke, email@example.com
When a prospective member of a fraternity is seriously injured or dies as a result of hazing, in addition to likely criminal charges against the wrongdoers, a civil lawsuit will likely follow against the wrongdoers, their chapter, and the inter/national organization. The estate of Collin Wiant filed such a suit in February against Sigma Pi Fraternity, its Chapter at Ohio University, and ten not-yet-named perpetrators1 of the alleged hazing that led to Collin’s death.
Collin Wiant was a student at Ohio University (OU) in Athens, Ohio, and a pledge of Sigma Pi’s OU Epsilon Chapter. According to the Plaintiff’s Complaint filed February 14th, he was subjected to extreme hazing, included , but not limited to, “being (1) beaten with a belt; (2) forced to beat others with a belt; (3) punched; (4) pelted with eggs; (5) provided with and forced to take drugs (including nitrous oxide); (6) provided with and forced to drink a gallon of alcohol in 60 minutes; and (7) deprived of sleep2.” Plaintiff alleges that “the hazing caused bodily injury, emotional distress, and ultimately, Collin Wiant’s death.”
In its summary of the background facts, Plaintiff alleges that “hazing continues to be a well-known occurrence” at Sigma Pi. The Complaint cites two examples of previous incidents—one in March 2016 at Hofstra University, and one in January 2019 at California Polytechnic Institute— in which Sigma Pi International suspended chapters after reports of hazing at those chapters.
The Wiant Complaint focuses on activities alleged to have occurred at a residence described as the “unofficial annex house of the Epsilon Chapter. . . at 45 Mill Street in Athens, Ohio.” Plaintiff alleges that location, which is the residence of several active members, is “a hub for hazing activities and. . . social activities, including parties where drugs and alcohol were made available.” The Complaint states that inside the residence was a room called the “Fun Room,” or the “Education Room,” which was “riddled with holes in the wall, egg shells all over the floor, and pillow cases that were used for some unknown purpose.”
According to the Complaint, in addition to the physical abuse Collin and the other pledges were subjected to, abuse involving drugs and alcohol occured. In one instance, pledges were locked inside the bedroom of the fraternity president at the 45 Mill Street residence and forced to drink one gallon of alcohol in one hour. The Complaint also claims that the fraternity “provided and/or forced pledges, including Collin, to take cocaine, marijuana, Adderall, and Xanax along with moonshine and other types of alcohol.”
On November 11, 2018, Collin went to two different bars with members of the Sigma Pi Epsilon Chapter. Witnesses from both locations describe Collin as “acting normal” or “seeming fine.” Shortly after midnight, an active fraternity member, Corbin Gustafson, instructed Collin to go to the 45 Mill Street residence, to which Collin allegedly responded, “I know I’m going to get hazed.” Collin and Gustafson went to Collin’s dorm room and then “presumably directly to the 45 Mill St. residence.” Witnesses from Collin’s dorm room again described him as “acting completely fine.”
At 2:50 am on November 12, 2018, Corbin Gustafson called 911 and indicated that Collin Wiant was unresponsive at 45 Mill St. In the 911 call, which has since been released, Gustafson can be heard
saying “I think my friend drank a little too much.” When asked about Collin’s condition, he stated that Collin was passing out but still breathing. Collin was found “surrounded by drug paraphernalia, including canisters of nitrous oxide.” A later toxicology report showed that Collin died from asphyxiation from ingesting nitrous oxide. The complaint alleges that drugs, including the nitrous oxide, were “provided by and/or forced on Collin by members of the Epsilon Chapter of the Sigma Pi Fraternity.”
The Complaint further claims that “within hours” of Collin’s death, the Epsilon Chapter called an emergency meeting to initiate the remaining pledges as full members of the fraternity with the intent of “clos[ing] ranks within all fraternity members to make sure they all told the same story concerning the events of earlier that morning.”
The Complaint alleges seven specific counts: (1) Violation of Ohio’s Anti-Hazing Statue, R.C. 2307.44; (2) Negligent Supervision (against Sigma Pi); (3) Negligent Supervision (against the Epsilon Chapter); (4) Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress; (5) Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress; (6) Negligence; and (7) Civil Conspiracy.
Plaintiff argues that Collin was hazed by members of Sigma Pi in violation of Ohio Revised Code Section 2307.443, that defendants “authorized, requested, commanded, and/or tolerated the hazing,” and “knew or reasonably should have known of the hazing. . . and did not take responsible steps to prevent it.”
Plaintiff further asserts that Sigma Pi and the Epsilon Chapter owed Collin a duty of care and that Sigma Pi was negligent in allowing Collin to be hazed. Plaintiff argues that Sigma Pi was negligent in permitting harmful rituals and not adequately warning members of the dangers of such rituals or adequately assuring that such rituals were not taking place at its chapters, including the Epsilon Chapter. Also, Plaintiff argues that it was “foreseeable that a pledge, including Collin Wiant, could die as a result of hazing activities.”
Finally, Plaintiff allege that defendants were negligent by claiming that Sigma Pi has rules against drug and alcohol use and hazing, and that the Epsilon Chapter, which is bound by those rules and policies, failed to enforce them.
Both Sigma Pi International and the Epsilon Chapter have filed answers to the Complaint in this case.
It its answer, Sigma Pi International denies the allegations in all seven counts of the Complaint, although in some cases only “as they are directed at the International Fraternity.” They also deny: knowledge of hazing within the fraternity; owing a duty of care to Collin Wiant; that the International Fraternity is “responsible for instituting and enforcing the policies that provide adequate supervision of new and potential members from acts of hazing”; any negligence; and that it was foreseeable that a pledge could die as a result of the hazing activities.
The international fraternity also mounted five affirmative defenses. The first states that Plaintiff “failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.”
The second argues that “Plaintiff’s alleged harms and the underlying event were caused solely and exclusively by acts and/or omissions of others besides the International Fraternity, over whom the International Fraternity possessed no control and was not legally or otherwise responsible for. Furthermore, the International Fraternity is not legally responsible for the alleged acts or omissions of any other defendants, including but not limited to the defendants named by Plaintiff as John Does 1-10.”
The third affirmative defense addresses primary and secondary assumed risk and argues that Collin Wiant “voluntarily and knowingly” participated in the events that took place and therefore “assumed all of the risks incident to said events.” Because of this, the International Fraternity argues that Plaintiff are limited in and/or barred from recovery.
The fourth affirmative defense similarly states that all of the “alleged events and happening, injuries, losses, and/or damages referred to in the Plaintiff’s complaint were directly and proximately caused and contributed to. . . by the carelessness, recklessness, negligence, and/or intentional acts of Wiant.”
In its own separate answer to the Complaint, the Epsilon Chapter also denies most of Plaintiff’s claims. The Chapter also denies that the residence where Collin died—45 Mill Street—is an unofficial annex of the Epsilon Chapter, the existence of the “fun/education room” inside that residence, and that Collin was hazed and suffered abuse at the hands of members of the Chapter.
Most notably, the Chapter denies that Collin was a pledge of the Epsilon Chapter at the time of his death because the Chapter “suspended him and removed him from its pledging process on or about October 24, 2018, upon receipt of information that an allegation of sexual assault had been made against Collin Wiant and that a police investigation of such allegation had been commenced.” The Chapter also “denies that Collin was killed.”
The Epsilon Chapter also offers four additional defenses. Like the international fraternity, the Chapter claims that Plaintiff have failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted and that Collin Wiant knowingly and voluntarily participated in the events described, thereby assuming the risk of those events and creating negligence only on his own part.
As a matter of note, Ohio Revised Code Section 2307.44 states:
“The negligence or consent of the plaintiff or any assumption of the risk by the plaintiff is not a defense to an action brought pursuant to this section. In an action against a school, university, college, or other educational institution, it is an affirmative defense that the school, university, college, or other institution was actively enforcing a policy against hazing at the time the cause of action arose.”
There has been no ruling to date in this case, but Fraternal Law will of course keep up to date on any developments. Ohio University, however, had made a deicison about the future of Sigma Pi on its campus. The Epsilon Chapter was charged with 10 violations of the Student Code of Conduct and on May 1st the University announced it had expelled the chapter in a move it described as “final.”
1It can be expected that as discovery proceeds, the identity of these individuals will become clear and they will be added as named defendants.
2Court of Common Pleas, Athens County, Ohio. Wade Wiant and Kathleen Wiant as Co-Administrators of the Estate of Collin Lewis Wiant v. Sigma Pi Fraternity, Epsilon Chapter, et al. 14 Mar. 2019.
3Ohio R.C. § 2307.44 addresses Hazing Civil Liability and reads in relevant part:
Any person who is subjected to hazing, as defined in division (A) of section 2903.31 of the Revised Code, may commence a civil action for injury or damages, including mental and physical pain and suffering, that result from the hazing. The action may be brought against any participants in the hazing, any organization whose local or national directors, trustees, or officers authorized, requested, commanded, or tolerated the hazing, and any local or national director, trustee, or officer of the organization who authorized, requested, commanded, or tolerated the hazing.