Friday, October 24, 2008

Court Rules Hazing Is Costly

Fraternity must pay $16.2 million in hazing death
Judgement comes after UT, national chapters fail to respond to suit.
By Tony Plohetski, Claire Osborn
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

A state district judge has ordered the national and University of Texas chapters of a fraternity to pay $16.2 million to the parents of a freshman pledge who fell to his death two years ago after authorities said he was subjected to hazing.

The Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity must pay each of the parents of Marietta, Ga., native Tyler Cross $2.5 million for mental anguish and nearly $81,000 for funeral expenses, as well as additional damages, according to a default judgment by Judge John Dietz .

Dietz issued the order Wednesday afternoon after the national and local SAE chapters failed to respond to a lawsuit filed in September, said attorney Robby Alden , who is representing the Cross family. State law allows the chapters to seek a new trial, which could be granted if the representatives explain why they didn't respond to the suit and can defend allegations against them.

SAE national officials did not return a call seeking comment Thursday. Several SAE officials in Texas, including Charles Nettles, the current president of the UT chapter, and Jody Lane, the president of the SAE alumni advisory board, could not be reached for comment.

A civil case against the organization's alumni board and housing corporation is pending.

"The amount awarded may seem substantial \u2026 but it falls far short of the value of Tyler Cross' life and what he meant to his parents," Alden said.

Austin attorney Jay Harvey , immediate past president of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association , said such default judgements are uncommon when they involve defendants "who are financially capable of defending themselves."

He also said the judgement amount in the Cross case is "very rare." Alden said the amount is based on a request the family made in court.

Family members of another UT pledge, Phanta "Jack" Phoummarath , in July settled a case with Lambda Phi Epsilon for $4.2 million . Phoummarath, a Houston freshman, died in 2005 after drinking a fatal amount of alcohol during a pledge party.

Alden said the Cross family had sought to possibly mediate and settle the case out of court, but got no response from chapter attorneys. He said doing so would have allowed them to possibly ask questions about the days and hours before their son's death.

Travis county prosecutors began an investigation into the fraternity after Cross fell from his fifth-floor balcony of an off-campus dormitory in November 2006.

Investigators have said that the night before his body was discovered, he and other pledges were given half-gallon liquor bottles to drink. An autopsy report said Cross had a blood alcohol level of more than twice the legal limit for driving in Texas.

This year, two former pledge trainers pleaded no contest to hazing and furnishing alcohol to minors and were sentenced to four days in jail and two years of deferred adjudication, a form of probation.

The former president of Sigma Alpha Epsilon's UT chapter also pleaded no contest to the charges and received one year of deferred adjudication, and a fourth member pleaded no contest to failure to report hazing and also received one year of deferred adjudication.

The same month, the fraternity reached an agreement with UT officials that allows the organization to keep operating if it changes some of its pledging and social activities.

Under the agreement, the group must give advance notice of large parties, limit the attendance of guests to those named on a pre-party guest list, hire off-duty police officers to provide security and limit parties or events to Fridays and Saturdays with an ending time of 2 a.m., among other provisions.

The Cross family had said in their lawsuit that in the days before Tyler Cross died, he was subjected to hazing that included beatings with large sticks of bamboo and paddles, forced to drink large amounts of alcohol, sleep deprivation and "other acts of assault or battery."

The suit did not seek a specific damage amount.

Alden said that through the suit, the family was hoping, in part, to voice wishes about changes they would like the organization to make. He said they do not want the UT chapter to close, but instead remain open without hazing.

"This is just a terrible tragedy," Alden said. "They want to make sure this never happens again."