North Carolina Court Upholds Summary Judgment for Fraternity in Wrongful Death Case Involving Hazing Allegations

In a few short months, freshmen will be heading to college to begin a new chapter of their lives. For some, this may involve joining a fraternity or sorority. Although many of these organizations provide members with a sense of community, support, and other benefits during their college careers, some resort to dangerous and unnecessary hazing as part of the initiation process. Recent news reports have highlighted incidences of hazing being taken too far and even leading to student deaths. If you or your child were harmed as a result of hazing, contact the dedicated Charlotte personal injury lawyers at Maurer Law to learn more about your potential right to recovery.

Recently, a North Carolina Court of Appeal discussed whether a fraternity can be held liable for injuries that a student sustains as a result of hazing activities. The decedent in the case was a student who was pledged to a local chapter of a national fraternity. He died while staying as an overnight guest at the apartment of another fraternity member. The fraternity member testified that the pair had stayed up until 4 a.m. ingesting drugs and alcohol and that he went to class at 9 a.m. when he observed the decedent still sleeping in his apartment. He further testified that when he returned from class the decedent was pale, non-responsive, and appeared to have vomited.

Evidence in the record detailed some of the hazing activities that pledge class members allegedly underwent including being forced to drink alcohol to excess and physical violence. Text messages that the decedent had sent his friends suggested that he was undergoing serious mental stress as a result of the alleged hazing activities and pressures of the pledge process.

The decedent’s estate brought a negligence action against the chapter and the campus alleging that its hazing practices were the ultimate cause of the student’s death. An autopsy concluded that the cause of death was poisoning from an opioid painkiller that the decedent had taken with the fraternity brother at his apartment and that any physical injuries identified were superficial and not a contributing factor to his death. The decedent’s family hired a forensic pathologist, who concluded that the decedent died from aspirating vomit, which was precipitated by blunt force trauma to his head and a resulting concussion. The pathologist also stated that the levels of drugs identified in the autopsy report were not high enough to be lethal.

The lower court ultimately granted summary judgment in favor of the fraternity on the basis that the plaintiff had provided at most speculation that the hazing activities were the cause of the decedent’s death. Ordinarily, whether conduct is the proximate cause of an injury is a question left to the jury to decide. Where the evidence is so compelling that no reasonable minds could differ, however, a court can reach a conclusion regarding proximate cause without the jury. The appellate court determined that this was a situation where the evidence was clear regarding the lack of a causal connection between the fraternity’s alleged hazing activities and the decedent’s death. As a result, it upheld the lower court’s order of summary judgment in the fraternity’s favor.

If you or your child is involved with a fraternity or sorority and has suffered an injury as a result of hazing, contact the Charlotte personal injury lawyers at Maurer Law as soon as possible to explore your potential right to damages. Hazing is incredibly dangerous and can leave lasting emotional and physical injuries on the victim. Our compassionate team of legal professionals offers a free and private consultation to discuss your situation. Call today at 1-888-258-1087 or contact us online to get started.

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