Spring party season is just around the corner on college campuses all over the country. Greek Week and various fraternity and sorority social activities punctuate the landscape as students sprint to finish out the academic year. But there is an underbelly to this culture that is about to be examined by the Illinois Supreme Court in reviewing a case of fraternity hazing that is the stuff of nightmares for parents sending their not yet adult children off to school.
In the case of Bogenberger v. Eta Nu Chapter of Pi Kappa Alpha International, David Bogenberger and his fellow pledges were required to drink such massive amounts of alcohol at an event that they were laid in the basement of the fraternity house in “positions so they would not choke [on their own vomit].” Fraternity members allegedly were told not to call for medical help for pledges who became unconscious and ordered to delete photos and videos of the event. David died with a blood alcohol level of 0.43.
Notwithstanding these egregious facts, an action by David’s father did not survive motions to dismiss. He faced longstanding precedent regarding so-called “social host liability” founded on the public policy that anyone selling or giving alcohol may not be held liable for the actions of the consumers of alcohol.
Offering a narrow opening for plaintiffs, the appellate court scrutinized the fraternity’s actions and found the plaintiff could state a claim for negligence based on the fraternity’s conduct that resulted from David’s required participation in a fraternity event and the actions the defendants undertook in violation of the Illinois Hazing Act, a criminal statute. The court also said that the elected officers and pledge board members of the local fraternity chapter were acting within the scope of their authority when they planned and executed the event, so this could give rise to liability as well.
The court would not allow claims to proceed against any other named defendants such as the national and international branches of the fraternity, nor other non-fraternity participants in the melee. The broader arms of these fraternal organizations protect themselves by paying lip-service to a no-hazing policy that seems to satisfy insurers and courts, but is an affront to grieving parents who rely on these entities to actually enforce these policies, not turn a blind eye with impunity. At least the Bogenbergers have some hope that their son’s death will not be in vain and the individuals who sacrificed their character and integrity in saving their own skin at the expense of their “little brother” will learn loyalty and friendship means standing up and sometimes even standing alone.