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National fraternity not entitled to summary judgment in wrongful death case

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The national organization of a Wabash College fraternity where a freshman pledge died after a night of heavy drinking is not entitled to summary judgment on the student’s parents’ claims arising from his wrongful death, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled.

Johnny Dupree Smith was a freshman at Wabash in Crawfordsville and a pledge at the Beta Psi Chapter of Delta Tau Delta. During “hell week,” Smith drank heavily at a party, some of which he did while participating in a “pledge family drink night.” The morning after the party, he was found unresponsive. The coroner determined he had been dead for several hours and his blood alcohol content was nearly 0.40 percent.

His parents, Stacy and Robert Smith, sued the school, local chapter of the fraternity, the national organization, and the chapter's risk manager, alleging violations of the hazing statute and the dram shop laws and asserted a claim of negligence against Delta Tau Delta.

Delta Tau Delta has a constitution, bylaws, and member responsibility guidelines that provide policies and rules for both individual and chapter expectations, including a prohibition of hazing and providing alcohol to pledges, requires its local chapters to comply with its rules, and enforces its rules at the chapter level in a variety of ways. Delta Tau Delta also mandated that each new member of the fraternity must complete an alcohol education program.

Delta Tau Delta filed a motion for summary judgment claiming Beta Psi’s individual members were not acting as agents of Delta Tau Delta and the national fraternity had not assumed a duty to the pledges of its local chapter to protect them from hazing and the danger of excessive alcohol consumption.

“To be sure, we are presented with a very narrow legal issue today. The parties are not alleging that an actual violation of the hazing statute or dram shop laws occurred; rather, we are requested to determine whether the national fraternity assumed a duty to its pledges or an agency relationship existed with the local chapter which could propel Delta Tau Delta within the purview of liability if the perceived violations of the hazing statute and dram shop laws took place,” Judge Patricia Riley wrote in 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.

The trial court had denied the Smiths’ motions to strike the affidavit of James Russell, Delta Tau Delta’s executive vice president, and two unsworn and uncertified statements made to police by witnesses. The trial court granted summary judgment for the national organization, the only defendant that the COA ruled on Wednesday.  

Several of the paragraphs showed contradictions as to the level of involvement the national organization has with local chapters, the Court of Appeals pointed out. And the two statements made by witnesses pertaining to the events around Johnny Smith’s death fall within the provision of investigative police reports and are inadmissible as hearsay under Ind. Evidence Rule 803(8).

The judges found that a genuine issue of material fact remains whether this level of influence alone is sufficient to find that the fraternity assumed a duty to protect its pledges from hazing and excessive alcohol consumption, the court held. The judges also found a genuine issue of material fact as to whether an agency relationship existed between the national organization and the local chapter.

Judge John Baker wrote a separate opinion in which he concurred in result with the majority and most of its analysis. But he believed the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it denied the Smiths’ request to strike Paragraph 6 of Russell’s affidavit regarding the handling of local chapter affairs.

 

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  1. Why are all these lawyers yakking to the media about pending matters? Trial by media? What the devil happened to not making extrajudicial statements? The system is falling apart.

  2. It is a sad story indeed as this couple has been only in survival mode, NOT found guilty with Ponzi, shaken down for 5 years and pursued by prosecution that has been ignited by a civil suit with very deep pockets wrenched in their bitterness...It has been said that many of us are breaking an average of 300 federal laws a day without even knowing it. Structuring laws, & civilForfeiture laws are among the scariest that need to be restructured or repealed . These laws were initially created for drug Lords and laundering money and now reach over that line. Here you have a couple that took out their own money, not drug money, not laundering. Yes...Many upset that they lost money...but how much did they make before it all fell apart? No one ask that question? A civil suit against Williams was awarded because he has no more money to fight...they pushed for a break in order...they took all his belongings...even underwear, shoes and clothes? who does that? What allows that? Maybe if you had the picture of him purchasing a jacket at the Goodwill just to go to court the next day...his enemy may be satisfied? But not likely...bitterness is a master. For happy ending lovers, you will be happy to know they have a faith that has changed their world and a solid love that many of us can only dream about. They will spend their time in federal jail for taking their money from their account, but at the end of the day they have loyal friends, a true love and a hope of a new life in time...and none of that can be bought or taken That is the real story.

  3. Could be his email did something especially heinous, really over the top like questioning Ind S.Ct. officials or accusing JLAP of being the political correctness police.

  4. Sounds like overkill to me, too. Do the feds not have enough "real" crime to keep them busy?

  5. We live in the world that has become wider in sense of business and competition. Everything went into the Web in addition to the existing physical global challenges in business. I heard that one of the latest innovations is moving to VDR - cloud-based security-protected repositories. Of course virtual data rooms comparison is required if you want to pick up the best one.

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