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Newsletter > November 2022 > "Sam Martinez Hazing Death: Sam’s Law and its Impact on Greek Organizations"
Sam Martinez Hazing Death: Sam’s Law and its Impact on Greek Organizations
Stephen R. Bernstein, Stephen R. Bernstein Law Offices, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sam Martinez, a 19-year-old student at Washington State University (WSU), pledged the Alpha Tau Omega (ATO) fraternity in July of 2019. He died on the morning of November 12, 2019, from acute alcohol poisoning, after having attended a fraternity function called “Big-Little Night” the night before. The big brother assigned to Sam and one other pledge gave them a half-gallon of rum, the equivalent of forty (40) shots, to share between the two.
Sam Martinez’s parents said university officials missed multiple opportunities to curb a culture of hazing at WSU, and that they lost their son because of that negligence. In July 2020, they sued WSU and multiple fraternity defendants, including ATO national, the local chapter, and the property owner, along with several individual members. In the Complaint, the family argued that WSU had a duty to protect students from foreseeable harm and enforce Washington state hazing laws. The Complaint specifically alleged that WSU documented a troubled history at ATO fraternity dating back to 2013.
Specifically, the Complaint asserted that “WSU continuously promoted, sanctioned and recognized ATO…despite being aware of continuing violations of alcohol, hazing, and other student conduct rules… WSU breached their duty to their students when it failed to curtail ongoing dangerous activities.”
University attorneys argued that WSU “did not owe a legal duty to protect Sam from the harm he suffered because of the illegal conduct of other adults at a private, off-campus establishment….[ATO] sought and was granted recognition by the University…the relationship agreement is facilitative and supportive, not controlling or micromanaging.”
A judge granted summary judgment in favor of Washington State University, stating there was “no ‘special relationship’ between the plaintiff and [WSU] that would create a duty owed to the plaintiff by [the University].” Sam Martinez’s parents appealed the decision. The family settled the lawsuit with the fraternity defendants for an undisclosed amount.
Police and university investigations both found the events leading up to Sam Martinez’s death constituted “illegal hazing.” In June 2021, fifteen (15) ATO members were each criminally charged with supplying liquor to minors, a gross misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of one year in jail and up to a $5,000 fine. Seven (7) fraternity members were sentenced to between 1-19 days in jail for serving alcohol to minors. Washington State University removed ATO’s recognition of the Chapter, and the ATO national revoked its charter. The Chapter can seek reinstatement in 2026.
In a statement to the New York Times, Martinez’ family said the penalties were “insulting compared to the devastating consequences of their actions, which directly led to Sam’s death, and the loss we are living with for the rest of our lives.”
Sam’s parents became strong advocates for legislation to prevent similar tragedies. On March 30, 2022, “Sam’s Law” was signed by Washington Governor, Jay Inslee, although a bill to increase the penalties and statute of limitations for hazing did not pass.
As a refresher, Sam’s Law requires each public and private institution of higher education to:
- Prohibit hazing off campus, as well as on campus, in its code of conduct.
- Provide students with an educational program on hazing and the dangers of and prohibition on hazing as part of new student orientation sessions, including information regarding hazing awareness, prevention, intervention, and the institution’s policy on hazing. The educational program must be posted on each institution’s public website for parents, legal guardians, and volunteers to view.
- Create institutional materials on student rights and responsibilities given to student organizations, athletic teams, or living groups, either electronically or in hard copy form, that include a statement on the institution’s anti-hazing policy and on the dangers of hazing.
- Establish a hazing prevention committee to promote and address hazing prevention. Fifty percent of the committee positions must include students currently attending the higher education institution with at least one position filled by a student from a student organization, athletic team, or living group. The other fifty percent of the committee positions should include at least one faculty or staff member and one parent or legal guardian of a student currently enrolled at the institution.
- Maintain and publicly report actual findings of violations by any student organization, athletic team, or living group of the public or private institution of higher education’s code of conduct, anti-hazing policies, or state or federal laws relating to hazing or offenses related to alcohol, drugs, sexual assault, or physical assault.
- Provide hazing prevention education on the signs and dangers of hazing as well as the institution’s prohibition on hazing to employees, including student employees, either in person or electronically.
- Ensure that any person who witnesses hazing or has reasonable cause to believe hazing has occurred or will occur and makes a report in good faith is not be sanctioned or punished for the violation of hazing unless the person is directly engaged in the planning, directing, or act of hazing reported.
Greek organizations that operate affiliated chapters at public or private universities in the State of Washington must be cognizant of Sam’s Law, and the duties the statue imposes. Sam’s Law requires social fraternity and sorority organizations to:
- Notify the public or private institution of higher education before chartering, rechartering, opening, or reopening a local chapter or operating at the public or private institution of higher education.
- Notify the public or private institution of higher education when the organization instigates an investigation of a local chapter at the public or private institution of higher education for hazing or other activity that includes an element of hazing, such as furnishing alcohol to minors.
- Provide the results of such investigation and a copy of the full findings report to the public or private institution of higher education’s student conduct office.
- Certify in writing and provide weblinks to any public or private institution at which a chapter is seeking to obtain or maintain recognition, showing that the landing pages of all websites owned or maintained by the local chapter contain a full list for the previous five years of all findings of violations of anti-hazing policies, state or federal laws relating to hazing, alcohol, drugs, sexual assault, or physical assault, or the institution’s code of conduct against the local chapter.
To comply with Sam’s Law, Washington State University now publishes a “Student Organization Policy Violation Report” on its website. The report lists student organizations who have been investigated for violating the Washington Administrative Code (WAC), and details how the University conducted investigations and held groups accountable. The University website also includes the following disclaimer:
Fraternity and sorority chapter facilities are not owned, operated, nor managed by Washington State University. Each chapter facility and Greek letter organization is controlled by its respective national organization, local chapter and/or housing corporation. Students and families should familiarize themselves with the policies and culture of each organization prior to joining.
All Greek organizations that operate affiliated or unaffiliated chapters at universities in the State of Washington must be cognizant of RCW 9A.20.021.
While Sam’s Law (Section 28B.10.906) arguably does not apply to Greek organizations not affiliated with universities, a different portion of Washington’s state hazing law, Section 28B.10.901, clearly imposes criminal sanctions and strict liability on both individuals and organizations, and even individual directors. Section 28B.10.901 neither mentions nor distinguishes the relationship between the organization and the university:
- No student, or other person in attendance at any public or private institution of higher education, or any other postsecondary educational institution, may conspire to engage in hazing or participate in hazing of another.
- A violation of this section is a misdemeanor, punishable as provided under RCW 9A.20.021.
- Any organization, association, or student living group that knowingly permits hazing is strictly liable for harm caused to persons or property resulting from hazing. If the organization, association, or student living group is a corporation whether for profit or nonprofit, the individual directors of the corporation may be held individually liable for damages.
Sam’s Law is a zero-tolerance hazing law that requires an organization to lose recognition from the university if found responsible for hazing or else the university will be in violation of state law. Failure of a social fraternity or sorority organization to comply results in automatic loss of recognition until such time that the organization comes into compliance with those subsections.
 Complaint, Martinez v. Wash. St. Univ., No. 20-2-11998-9 SEA (Wash. Sup. Ct.).
 Id. at *28.
 Martinez v. Wash. St. Univ., No. 20-2-11998-9 SEA, at *2 (Wash. Sup. Ct. Mar. 24, 2022).
 Johnny Diaz, 15 Men Charged in Connection with Death of Fraternity Pledge, N.Y. Times (June 3, 2021).
 Wash. Rev. Code § 28B.10.906.
 Fraternity & Sorority Life, Wash. St. Univ., https://gogreek.wsu.edu (last visited Nov. 11, 2022).