Driver in fatal hit-and-run sues fraternity over hazing
By TONY RIZZOThe Kansas City Star
An area man who was tied up for hours inside a dog cage at a Louisiana fraternity claims in a lawsuit that the hazing incident led to post-traumatic stress syndrome that hinders his decision-making abilities.
Two months after the hazing, Curtis Mertensmeyer killed a pedestrian in a hit-and-run crash on Ward Parkway.
Although it does not mention the accident, the lawsuit maintains that post-traumatic stress syndrome caused Mertensmeyer to “take unwise actions because of a breakdown in his decision-making process in stressful situations.”
The lawyer who recently filed the federal suit in Kansas City declined to comment.
Other fraternities across the country have faced similar lawsuits in recent years, some involving hazing incidents in which fraternity pledges died.
Mertensmeyer, 21, is incarcerated at a Missouri prison after pleading guilty in November to involuntary manslaughter in the May hit-and-run death of 25-year-old Daniel Riemann. In February, Mertensmeyer received a five-year sentence, but a judge will consider probation after he serves 120 days.
He filed his lawsuit against the Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity and its chapter at Tulane University in New Orleans, where Mertensmeyer was a student and fraternity pledge.
The fraternity’s national office and the Tulane chapter president did not respond to phone and e-mail requests for comment.
Tulane has a zero-tolerance policy on hazing, university spokesman Michael Strecker said. The Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity is facing a student conduct hearing for allegedly violating the policy, he said.
The university learned of hazing allegations against the fraternity Jan. 15, he said. It immediately placed the fraternity on temporary suspension while university staff investigate, he said.
While suspended, the fraternity can’t hold events at the chapter house or off campus. On-campus meetings must be supervised by an adviser or representative from the fraternity’s national office.
Strecker said he could not discuss whether Mertensmeyer’s case triggered the investigation.
Mertensmeyer’s mother, Jane Stafford, who is also the attorney who filed the suit, declined to discuss the hazing incident.
The lawsuit contends Mertensmeyer was forced to crawl inside a dog cage and was left there for several hours with his hands and feet tied together, according to the suit. Fraternity members allegedly threw items at him and poured unknown liquids on him while verbally abusing him.
After being released from the cage, the suit says, Mertensmeyer went outside with his feet and hands still tied, fell on concrete outside the fraternity house and injured himself.
Afterward, fraternity members continued to threaten and harass him to keep him from reporting the hazing. They told him that “the entire Greek system would be out to ‘get him’ on campus,” the suit alleges.
As a result, Mertensmeyer allegedly suffered permanent emotional and mental injuries.
“Because of the post traumatic stress syndrome, when faced with stressful situations, (he) fails to make decisions in an appropriate and thought-out manner,” according to the lawsuit.
The suit does not mention a specific amount of damages being sought.
“Hazing at fraternities is a serious and deadly problem,” said Douglas Fierberg, an expert on anti-hazing laws and a lawyer who has represented hazing victims and their families across the country.
The problem has persisted despite state laws and the anti-hazing policies of fraternities and universities, he said. Missouri, Kansas and Louisiana are among 44 states that have outlawed hazing.
“Within the last six months alone, several kids have died in fraternity hazing incidents,” Fierberg said. “That’s not counting kids who have likely been injured in hazing incidents that have not yet been discovered.”
News reports recount at least five deaths nationwide this school year in which hazing is suspected.
Though fraternities ban hazing, Fierberg said, they usually leave implementation of the policies to members who are in their late teens and early 20s.
“They are untrained and are put in the position of making life-and-death decisions,” Fierberg said.
Juries across the country have awarded large verdicts in injury cases, he said.
A student in Texas won a $1.1 million verdict after his skull was cracked and he suffered brain damage. A Kentucky student who was beaten and suffered renal failure won $1 million. A Maryland student received a $375,000 judgment plus punitive damages after he was beaten and a heat lamp was held next to his face.
In the hit-and-run case, Mertensmeyer admitted in Jackson County Circuit Court that he had been drinking last May when he drove along Ward Parkway near 56th Street and struck something with his car.
He drove to nearby Loose Park, where one of his passengers told him he may have hit a person. He said he started to walk back to the scene but “froze” and left when he saw flashing emergency lights.
Daniel Riemann’s mother, Kelly Riemann, said Mertensmeyer’s defense attorneys never raised anything about the alleged hazing during the criminal case.
“I don’t think this has anything to do with what he did to my son,” she said.
© 2009 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.