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Campus fraternity chapter may be liable for alleged hazing injury

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A Wabash College fraternity pledge’s injury claim resulting from alleged hazing, ruled on recently by the Indiana Supreme Court, turned not on whether he was hazed inside the frat house, but on who may be liable.

“I think the court kind of took the most direct approach and applied landlord-tenant caselaw,” said Thomas R. Schultz, a partner at Schultz & Pogue LLP, who represented Wabash College 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.

The Supreme Court affirmed summary judgment in favor of Wabash and the national Phi Kappa Psi organization, but allowed a claim against the local Greek chapter to proceed.

“Obviously, Wabash wasn’t there that night, wasn’t there to see what was happening, and under Indiana law didn’t owe a duty of care” to Brian Yost, Schultz said. Yost was an 18-year-old freshman pledge when Phi Kappa Psi fraternity brothers were carrying him and dropped him, allegedly causing injuries that forced him to withdraw from the college.

Justices in a 4-1 opinion Feb. 13 affirmed trial and Court of Appeals rulings with regard to the college and the national fraternity. But justices reversed summary judgment in favor of the local Indiana Gamma Chapter of the fraternity, finding that Yost could pursue compensatory and punitive damages for injuries he sustained in the house.

“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,” Chief Justice Brent Dickson wrote for the majority. “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.”

The Wabash Phi Kappa Psi chapter practiced a ritual called “creeking” in which fraternity members were tossed into a nearby creek on their birthdays. “Showering,” the activity that was being carried out when Yost was hurt, derives from that tradition.

Anne Cowgur, a Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP partner who argued Yost’s case before the Indiana Supreme Court, declined to discuss the pending case which has been remanded to Montgomery Superior Judge David Ault. Other attorneys representing Yost and his family did not respond to messages seeking comment.

“All of us are looking forward to proceeding with this case and continuing our efforts to assist Mr. Yost,” Cowgur said.

Greek rites

For Greek organizations on college campuses, the decision buttresses the proactive stance that fraternities and sororities have taken against hazing on the national level, said Sean Callan, founding partner of Cincinnati-based Fraternal Law Partners, which represents such organizations.

“Greek organizations on a national level are sort of thankful the Yost decision came down as it did,” Callan said. Had the justices found liability on the part of the national organization, that could have jeopardized those groups’ educational outreach aimed at preventing hazing, he said.

“Every national organization has a policy against hazing of any type. It’s just something that’s not condoned or tolerated at the national level,” Callan explained. Had the national Phi Kappa organization been aware of the Wabash creeking tradition, he said, “It would have been ended immediately.”

In Yost, justices were unanimous only in agreeing that the national organization should not face a claim of liability.

“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,” Dickson wrote. Like numerous other Greek organizations, Phi Kappa Psi is based in Indianapolis.

The court also noted a public policy rationale for not holding the national organization liable. It “should be encouraged, not disincentivized, to undertake programs to promote safe and positive behavior and to discourage hazing and other socially undesirable conduct,” Dickson wrote.

Callan said the Yost decision could have far-reaching consequences, especially as more colleges seek ownership and control of the properties where Greek institutions are located, as was the case at Wabash.

“It’s becoming more prevalent. More and more colleges and institutions are going to a concept of a ‘Greek village’ where the college will typically own the ground and own the building and lease” to fraternities or sororities, he explained.

Back to basics

Some eight months after hearing arguments, justices formally requested a copy of the lease agreement between Wabash College and the local chapter. The court’s ruling followed several weeks later.

“What’s interesting about the opinion is the Supreme Court looked at it in a different way than the Court of Appeals,” Schultz said. As it pertained to Wabash College, “The Court of Appeals looked at it and said, ‘Is this hazing?’ … The Supreme Court looked at it as, ‘What is the duty the landlord owes to its tenant?’”

Justice Robert Rucker dissented with respect to Wabash, which he wrote had not given full control and possession of the property it leased to the local fraternity. “(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.

Callan said the court also relied on Indiana caselaw dating back to the 1980s establishing that colleges and universities may not be subject to “in lieu of parents” theories of liability.

The Yost decision already has impacted another case in which Wabash and national and local fraternities are defendants. The parents of Johnny Smith, a freshman who died after a night of heavy drinking, won a Court of Appeals ruling in May saying national fraternity Delta Tau Delta wasn’t entitled to summary judgment in the parents’ wrongful death claim.

The case, Stacy Smith and Robert Smith, Individually and as Co-Personal Representatives of the Estate of Johnny Dupree Smith, Deceased v. Delta Tau Delta, Beta Psi Chapter of Delta Tau Delta, Wabash Col., et al., 54A01-1204-CT-169, is pending a petition to grant transfer to the Indiana Supreme Court.

Frost Brown Todd LLP partner Kevin Schiferl, who represents the national chapter of Delta Tau Delta, said a supplemental brief in that case was filed days after the Yost decision, “which we think on all four squares is the same issue.”

The Smith case also has drawn the interest of a number of Greek organizations that have filed amicus briefs in support of Fishers-based Delta Tau Delta. On the other side, the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association has filed in support of Smith, said the plaintiffs’ attorney, Stephen Wagner of Wagner Reese LLP in Carmel.

The COA ruling is “one of the first decisions around the country that found a national (Greek) organization could have liability,” Wagner said.

Wagner said he couldn’t comment about the pending case before the Supreme Court. Neither Wabash nor the local Delta Tau Delta chapter have sought summary judgment at the trial court level, he said.•
 

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  1. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  2. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  3. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  4. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

  5. I am compelled to announce that I am not posting under any Smith monikers here. That said, the post below does have a certain ring to it that sounds familiar to me: http://www.catholicnewworld.com/cnwonline/2014/0907/cardinal.aspx

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