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Justices affirm judgment in favor of national fraternity in wrongful death action

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A national fraternity assumed no duty to protect local chapter pledges and is not vicariously liable for the negligence of local chapter officers and representatives, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled Wednesday. The justices affirmed summary judgment for Delta Tau Delta in a wrongful death action brought by a deceased pledge’s family.

Johnny Dupree Smith, a freshman pledge of the Beta Psi Chapter of Delta Tau Delta, died of acute alcohol intoxication after drinking heavily at the fraternity house at Wabash College. His parents sued the national fraternity, the local chapter, Wabash College and others. The trial court granted the national fraternity’s motion for summary judgment, and the Court of Appeals affirmed in part but reversed the grant of summary judgment.

The justices examined the issues brought by Smith’s family in light of its recent decision in Yost v. Wabash College, 3 N.E.3d 509 (Ind. 2014).

The Smiths argued two claims on appeal: that certain evidence designated by Delta Tau Delta should be stricken and there are genuine issues of material fact as to whether the national fraternity assumed a duty to protect the local chapter pledges and whether it is vicariously liable for the negligence of local chapter officers and representatives.

The justices decided that they may consider the affidavit of the executive vice president of the national fraternity but not the purported interview transcripts by police in evaluating Delta Tau Delta’s motion for summary judgment.

The Supreme Court, citing previous cases dealing with national fraternity liability for local chapter activities, including Yost, found there is no designated evidentiary material showing Delta Tau Delta had a right to exercise direct day-to-day oversight and control over the activities of the local fraternity and its members, Chief Justice Brent Dickson wrote. Just as in Yost, the specific duty undertaken in regard to the policies on hazing and underage and irresponsible drinking was an educational one without any power of preventative control.

The justices also found as a matter of law that an agency relationship does not exist between the national fraternity and the Wabash chapter or its members.

“Although subject to remedial sanctions, in their choice of conduct and behavior, the local fraternity and its members were not acting on behalf of the national fraternity and were not subject to its control,” he wrote. “The national fraternity is not subject to vicarious liability for the actions of the local fraternity, its officers or its members.”

The case is Stacy Smith and Robert Smith, Individually and as Co-Personal Representatives of the Estate of Johnny Dupree Smith, Deceased v. Delta Tau Dalta, Inc. and Beta Psi Chapter of Delta Tau Delta, et al., 54S01-1405-CT-356.
 

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