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Newsletter > November 2020 > "“Off-Campus” Does Not Always Mean “Off the Hook”"
“Off-Campus” Does Not Always Mean “Off the Hook”
Ilana L. Linder, Fraternal Law Partners, Ilana.firstname.lastname@example.org
In April 2015, Joseph Koch, a student at Kean University, was injured when he was shot by another individual while both were guests at a party at an off-campus house occupied by several members of the Sigma Theta Chi Fraternity (STC). At the time of the party and shooting, STC was suspended by Kean University and was not permitted to host social events or gatherings, and therefore was continuing to host such events at the off-campus house. It is alleged that the party “was being hosted by fraternity members at a fraternity house, and [was] understood to be a fraternity event.”1Koch filed suit against several defendants, including the assailant, Kean University, Sigma Theta Chi Fraternity, and the STC members who occupied the house.
Finding that the shooting was an unforeseeable criminal act of a third-party to the non-assailant Defendants, the trial court held that no duty could have been imposed upon the majority of the Defendants. As such, the court granted summary judgment to the University and the Fraternity.
On appeal, however, the Superior Court of New Jersey’s Appellate Division vacated the order that granted summary judgment to Sigma Theta Chi and remanded for further proceedings.
Here, the issue came down to a matter of agency: was one of the occupants of the home, a Defendant for whom summary judgment had been denied by the trial court, acting as an agent of the fraternity at the time of the shooting? Because the trial court had not considered this issue, the appellate court held it was improper to grant summary judgment to the fraternity. Importantly, if one or more of the fraternity members who lived in the house where the shooting occurred had been acting as an agent for the fraternity, and that agent had advance knowledge of the potential for a shooting to occur based on threats made by the assailant prior to the shooting, the fraternity could have potentially be held liable.
However, because Koch reached a settlement agreement at the end of October 2020 with Sigma Theta Chi, the trial court will not have to actually examine the facts and give special consideration to the agency issue. This case nonetheless serves to caution that there is a potential for national fraternities and local chapters to be deemed liable based on the actions (or inactions) of their members, even when those members are engaged in private, off-campus activities.
1Koch v. State, N. A-5570-17T4, 2020 WL 256448, *9 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. Jan. 16, 2020).