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Newsletter > September 2017 > "Pi Kappa Alpha Dismissed from Sexual Assault Case"
Pi Kappa Alpha Dismissed from Sexual Assault Case
Thomas J. Dement II, Leitner, Williams, Dooley & Napolitan, PLLC
On October 27, 2015, Plaintiff Jane Doe filed a sexual-assault lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee in Nashville against three Pi Kappa Alpha entities and an individually named Defendant. After almost two years of litigation, the Fraternity entities were dismissed pursuant to motions for summary judgment, the Court finding that under the facts of the case they did not owe Plaintiff a duty of care.
Plaintiff brought causes of action for negligence and gross negligence against the Pi Kappa Alpha International Fraternity, Inc., the Delta Epsilon Chapter of Pi Kappa Alpha International Fraternity, Inc., and Delta Epsilon House Corporation. Each of the Fraternity Defendants moved for summary judgment on Plaintiff’s causes of action against them for negligence and gross negligence, as well as on any implied claims she may have made for vicarious liability and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
In the spring of 2015, the Pi Kappa Alpha chapter located at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga hosted a “rave” themed party at the Chapter house. Plaintiff attended the party as a guest of one of the Chapter members. The Chapter had roped off the party area with caution tape and marked non-public entrance doors to ensure guests checked into the party. The Chapter’s risk management team checked guests’ identifications at the entrance to the party, placed an X on guests who were under 21 using a black marker, and placed a wrist band on the guests who were of drinking age. The Chapter used sober monitors stationed around the party to monitor the guests. Sober monitors were responsible for turning people away from the party or removing them from the party when they appeared to be intoxicated. The Chapter did not purchase or otherwise provide alcohol for the party. Guests who brought alcohol had to check their alcohol in with sober monitors after showing their wrist band to the alcohol checkpoint monitors and all alcohol was kept behind a table that was monitored by Chapter members. Guests wearing an “above age” wrist band could check their alcohol back out when they wanted to consume it.
Plaintiff consumed some alcohol voluntarily before arriving at the Chapter house. Both Plaintiff and the individually named Defendant were under age at the time of the event. Plaintiff claims that she “blacked out” during the course of the party and could not remember much of the events of the evening until she awoke the next morning. Based upon accounts that Plaintiff received the following day from acquaintances and her post-party interactions with the individually named Defendant, Plaintiff concluded that she had been sexually assaulted in a bathroom at the Chapter house. The individually named Defendant asserted that the sexual contact in the bathroom was consensual. The Fraternity Defendants admitted for purposes of summary judgment only that the individually named Defendant may have committed a sexual assault on Plaintiff in the bathroom at the Chapter house.
III. LEGAL ISSUES AND DECISION
Plaintiff’s main causes of action in her Complaint against the Fraternity Defendants were negligence and gross negligence. However, the Fraternity Defendants asserted that Plaintiff was also making implied claims for vicarious liability and negligent infliction of emotional distress. With respect to the Fraternity, Plaintiff asserted that she was owed a duty of care because the Fraternity had promulgated “Standards” prohibiting sexual abusive behavior and regarding the consumption of alcohol. Furthermore, Plaintiff asserted that it was foreseeable to the Fraternity that she would be sexually assaulted at the Chapter house based on other alleged sexual-assault incidents occurring at other Pi Kappa Alpha Chapters. The Court dismissed Plaintiff’s claims against the Fraternity by finding that Plaintiff did not have a special relationship with the Fraternity because: (1) it had no means or ability to control the actions of the individually named Defendant; (2) any evidence of prior sexual misconduct at other chapters was immaterial; and (3) the Fraternity had no notice of prior sexual misconduct at the chapter in question. The Court also emphasized that Plaintiff failed to provide any authority for the proposition that knowledge of potential sexual misconduct at one chapter somehow puts the Fraternity on notice of likely sexual misconduct at other chapters.
With respect to the Chapter, the Court concluded that Plaintiff’s injuries, in the manner in which they occurred, were not reasonably foreseeable. The Court noted that there was no evidence that the Chapter had any notice of sexual misconduct by any other Chapter members, including the individually named Defendant. The Court further accepted the Chapter’s argument that knowledge of sexual misconduct at other chapters is not sufficient to provide the Chapter with notice that a sexual assault was “reasonably foreseeable” on the night of the party.
With respect to the House Corporation, the Court concluded that no representations or assurances were given to Plaintiff as to anything the House Corporation would do to protect Plaintiff at the party. While the Court acknowledged that the House Corporation was the owner of the property in which the alleged sexual assault occurred, the Court concluded that the House Corporation had neither the means nor the ability to control the actions of the individually named Defendant or any other Chapter member. The Court found that the House Corporation was merely in a contractual relationship with the Chapter and not with individual members of the Chapter. The Court further noted that no duty arose for the House Corporation because there was no evidence that it knew Plaintiff was in danger in anyway.
At the time of publication, the time period for Plaintiff to file a notice of appeal of the Court’s ruling on the Fraternity entities’ motions for summary judgment has not yet expired.
*Mr. Dement was the lead attorney representing the Pi Kappa Alpha entities in this action and serves as a partner in the Nashville offices of Leitner, Williams, Dooley & Napolitan, PLLC.