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Newsletter > September 2006 > "NPC RELEASED FROM LITIGATION"
NPC RELEASED FROM LITIGATION
Tim Burke, Manley Burke, firstname.lastname@example.org
In the fall of 2002, Jacqueline Gufrovich was in the process of pledging the Zeta Kappa Chapter of Sigma Sigma Sigma. She and other new members, apparently along with some of the actives, were engaged in a game called “Menu Mania.” They were driven to various restaurants in the vicinity of Montclair State University in New Jersey where the Chapter was located. After collecting menus from several restaurants, Gufrovich, one other of the new members and the driver of the car, an active, decided to stop at McDonald’s to get something to eat. Turning left into the McDonald’s parking lot, the driver failed to honor the right of way of an oncoming car. A collision ensued. Gufrovich was very seriously injured and paralyzed.
The lawsuit1 that followed named the driver of both cars, the cars’ owners, members of the Chapter, Sigma Sigma Sigma, the “National Organization,” the Sigma Sigma Sigma Executive Council and National Officers and the National Panhellenic Conference (NPC) as defendants.
The basic allegation against the fraternity-related defendants was that the activity in which Gufrovich had been engaged was a “sorority pledge scavenger hunt which was an improper hazing activity” and that the National Organization “knew or should have known of the continued custom and usage of scavenger hunts during initiations and failed to prohibit such activities.”
The suit, initially filed in January of 2004, remains pending. But the National Panhellenic Conference was released as a defendant following a good deal of discovery, the deposition of a former National Chairman of NPC, and the production of numerous documents from NPC’s files, when a Motion for Summary Judgment was granted to NPC on August 1, 2006.
A motion for summary judgment is a legal tool which allows a court to make a decision prior to trial that there is or is not sufficient evidence to go forward with the claim at trial against a particular defendant. The New Jersey standard for a motion for summary judgment is similar to that in other states. In a damage claim such as Gufrovich’s, in order to have a valid claim there must be evidence to establish that the defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff and breached that duty. In this instance, pre-motion discovery of NPC and the other defendants documented the fact that NPC had absolutely nothing to do with nor any knowledge of the events leading up to the accident, nor any ability to discipline those involved.
There was no doubt a relationship existed between NPC and Sigma Sigma Sigma, but it was not a relationship which gave NPC power to direct or control Sigma Sigma Sigma’s Zeta Kappa Chapter in any way.
In her deposition testimony, Jean Scott, the former Chairman of NPC, made it clear that NPC had no enforcement or disciplinary abilities over the conduct of the chapters of member organizations and did not approve or review any chapter’s social policies, plans for parties, events or membership activities. The Chapter “pledge mom,” technically the Vice President of the Chapter, made clear in her testimony that she was the one who decided what activities new members would participate in during the pledge period. She acknowledged that she did not advise NPC of the Menu Mania activity, nor anything else the Chapter was doing with its new members.
Because NPC had no authority to dictate, control or manage Sigma Sigma Sigma or its Chapter’s conduct at Montclair State, it had no duty to the plaintiff.
Even the plaintiff’s own expert witness was not able to assign any negligence to NPC.
Additionally, NPC’s trial counsel2 also argued that the actions of NPC were not the proximate cause of the injuries to Gufrovich. To establish proximate cause, “a plaintiff must first show that the defendant’s negligence was a ’cause in fact’ of the accident.” New Jersey law defines it this way:
“Any cause which in the natural and continuous sequence, unbroken by an efficient intervening cause, produces the result complained of and without which the result would not have occurred.”
NPC’s counsel argued that even if the court should find that there was a duty owed to the plaintiff, summary judgment in favor of NPC would still be appropriate because the proximate cause of the accident had nothing to do with any actions by NPC, but were solely the responsibility of the actions of the defendant driver who caused the accident.
In this case, at the time of the accident, the game of Menu Mania had ended. The three women in the car were on their own. They were not directed to the accident scene by NPC or anyone else. As NPC’s counsel put it in his motion, “What proximately led to the ensuing accident and plaintiff’s injuries arriving therefrom was Mary Merenda’s negligent and reckless operation of her vehicle.” NPC clearly had no involvement in that.
New Jersey’s summary judgment rules require that “if the pleadings, depositions and answers to Interrogatories and Admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact challenged and that the moving party should prevail as a matter of law.” Summary judgment is intended to provide a prompt, business-like and inexpensive means of disposing of a case where it is clear that, under the law, no decision could be made by a jury or finder of fact to impose liability or damages on the seeker of the motion.
Finally, more than a year and a half after NPC was named as a defendant in the lawsuit, the court granted summary judgment in favor of NPC. Claims against other defendants remain pending and trial is still some time off.
Already, there are lessons to be learned from this case. Even seemingly innocent activities can lead to tragic results if not planned carefully. It is just not wise for new member activity to require either the new members or active members to drive vehicles in order to engage in the activity. Safety depends upon the ability and care exercised by each individual driver.
Even a totally innocent and uninvolved party, in this case NPC, can find itself embroiled in a suit and though insurance coverage may exist, significant time, energy and expense can be involved in being extricated from such litigation.
1 Gufrovich v. Merenda, Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, Docket No. ESX-L-793-05.
2 David A. Weglin of the Fairfield, New Jersey firm of Kramkowski, Lynes, Fabricant and Bressler.