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Wabash fraternity must face alleged hazing-injury claim

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A freshman pledge’s personal-injury claim resulting from what he alleged was a hazing incident at Wabash College may proceed against the campus fraternity, and he may seek compensatory and punitive damages, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled Thursday, overturning lower court rulings.

But lower courts properly found that the college and national fraternity should bear no liability for injuries sustained by Brian Yost.

Chief Justice Brent Dickson affirmed trial court summary judgment in favor of the college and the national chapter of Phi Kappa Psi Inc., but reversed judgment for the Phi Kappa Psi’s Indiana Gamma Chapter at Wabash.

“The local fraternity’s rules and traditions arguably may have provided the active members of the fraternity with authority over the pledges, including Yost, and the exercise of such authority may have played a role in the events that led to Yost's injury. For instance, Yost’s injury occurred when the local fraternity brothers attempted to forcibly place him in the shower, an act which resembles a celebratory tradition of the local fraternity,” Dickson wrote.

Brian Yost was 18 when he suffered injuries that forced him to withdraw from Wabash. Yost was dropped on the floor during a “showering” incident. A trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the college and fraternity interests, and a divided Court of Appeals affirmed

“We conclude that, because Wabash, as landlord, had relinquished control of the house to the local fraternity, because any duties assumed by Wabash did not extend to direct oversight and control of individual students living in the house, and because of the absence of any viarious liability of Wabash arising from any agency relationship between Wabash and the local fraternity, Wabash is entitled to summary judgment in its favor,” Dickson wrote for the 4-1 majority.

The national fraternity had encouraged good behavior by individuals and had no control over the management of local fraternity residents, Dickson wrote.

“There is no genuine issue of fact tending to show the existence of an agency relationship, and thus the actions of the local fraternity and its members cannot, as a matter of law, be imputed to the national fraternity under a theory of vicarious liability,” he wrote for the majority in affirming judgment in favor of the national Phi Kappa Psi, based in Indianapolis.

Justice Robert Rucker dissented from the opinion in Brian Yost v. Wabash College, Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity-Indiana Gamma Chapter at Wabash College, Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity, Inc., and Nathan Cravens, 54S01-1303-CT-161, and would have also permitted a liability suit to proceed against Wabash College as well as the local fraternity. Rucker agreed that judgment for the national fraternity was proper.

Wabash had not given full control and possession of the property it leased to the local fraternity, Rucker wrote. “(A)s a landowner Wabash owed Yost – an invitee – ‘a duty to exercise reasonable care for his protection’ while on Wabash’s premises.

“Because Wabash in my view has not carried its burden of proof on this outcome-determinative issue, the trial court’s grant of summary judgment cannot be sustained on grounds that Wabash owed Yost no duty,” Rucker wrote.

Justices took more than nine months to issue an opinion in the case after oral arguments took place April 23 at Indiana University East in Richmond.
 
 

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