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Newsletter > February 2020 > "Lawsuit Filed Following Tragic Death At Cornell"
Lawsuit Filed Following Tragic Death At Cornell
Tim Burke, Fraternal Law Partners, firstname.lastname@example.org
To require or cajole a potential new member or pledge to drink anything to the point of being sick, especially alcohol, is the opposite of what brotherhood or sisterhood in a Greek organization should be about. Such conduct has no place in the fraternity world. It violates the rules and policies of every national fraternity and sorority. It breaks the rules of the college or university. It violates the criminal laws of every state regardless of whether the state has a specific crime called hazing, which forty-six states do. Most importantly, such conduct jeopardizes the safety, health, and life of those who are victimized by it.
Tragedy caused by would-be brothers or sisters should never happen. But unfortunately, tragedies continue to happen because some misguided chapter members do not believe that their conduct can cause harm—until it does. By then, it is too late.
Last October, eighteen-year-old Antonio Tsialas was a freshman at Cornell University. On October 24th, he had dinner with his mom who had come in early for parents’ weekend. After dinner he headed to the Phi Kappa Psi house for a party he was invited to attend as a potential new member. He had plans to see his mom and dad the next morning. That never happened.
A lawsuit filed in late January 2020 alleges the party he attended was a “dirty rush” party known as a “Christmas-in-October” party, apparently a tradition of the Chapter. What is described in the Complaint was a “meticulously planned” party that allegedly involved the setup of a series of seven drinking rooms including the Beer Room, Wine Room, Milk and Rum Room, and Santa Claus Room, among others. The Complaint states that “by the time the freshmen completed the drinking games in the seven different rooms they were intoxicated, and many were ‘black-out drunk.’ Many were vomiting and lost all memory of what they did next or how they eventually got back to their room.” Antonio never got back to his room.
Cornell University is replete with beautiful but dangerous gorges near campus. After being missing for a little over a day, Antonio Tsialas’ body was found at the bottom of one of those gorges on Saturday, October 26, 2019.
The lawsuit names the National Fraternity, its Chapter at Cornell, and seven members of the Chapter including the President, Vice President, Secretary, and a Chapter advisor. Cornell is also named as a Defendant.
The police investigation is ongoing, and if the results of similar analogous tragedies in the last few years are any indication, it is likely that some of those responsible for organizing the party, purchasing the alcohol, and providing it to underage potential new members will likely be criminally charged. If, as has occurred in other cases, the police determine that there has been an effort to hide or destroy evidence, there will be additional charges. Some members of the Chapter may face jail time.
Legislatures and courts around the country are not taking these matters lightly. They are increasing the penalties for hazing. Generally, hazing has been viewed as a misdemeanor crime, but some states have already moved to increase the crime of hazing to a felony when it results in a serious injury or death. Other states are moving to follow suit. Even Congress is considering including efforts to halt hazing in the upcoming Higher Education Reauthorization Bill.
Attorneys for the victims of hazing tragedies are pressing hard to obtain settlements or judgments with responsible parties, including recovering from the homeowner’s policies of the parents of the individual perpetrators.
If the facts alleged in the Complaint are true, a likely result is a multi-million dollar settlement prior to trial involving most, if not all, of the defendants.
There is little doubt that the organizers of the Christmas-in-October party anticipated none of this, because they simply did not believe that such a horrific result could happen to one of their future pledges or that a consequence of a death would fall on them. But that is what they were responsible for, and by engaging in such conduct, not only are they likely to be held responsible for Antonio’s death, but they are also likely to be held responsible for the horrific pain they have caused Antonio’s parents.
And then there is the damage they have done to the Greek world: they have jeopardized the future of their Cornell Chapter and the financial status of the National Fraternity. All of those committed to ending hazing have suffered a serious setback in those efforts.
Some will argue that the members who organized the party should not be responsible since they did not intend to hurt anyone. But neither does the drunk driver who veers across the road. Those party organizers may be young, but they are adults. They knew what they were doing was illegal. They knew it violated the rules of the Fraternity and the University. Like it or not, they are where the responsibility should lie.