Sunday, May 17, 2009

Lawsuit Filed Against Brothers for Inaction in Alcohol Death

Lawsuit filed over death of UD freshman
Civil suit names fraternity, five students after teen suffered alcohol poisoning at Nov. off-campus party
By SEAN O'SULLIVAN, The News Journal

WILMINGTON -- The family of a University of Delaware freshman who died after an off-campus party in November filed a wrongful death suit that claims fraternity members let him languish after forcing him to drink a large amount of alcohol.

The suit names the national fraternity, Sigma Alpha Mu, its local chapter and five students, including fraternity officers, the "pledge master" and the student who was assigned as Brett Griffin's "big brother" that night.

It alleges that late on Nov. 7, 2008, and into the next day, the 18-year-old Griffin was taking part in a "mandatory" fraternity function as a pledge, and was pressured into consuming an excessive amount of Southern Comfort. As a result of the hazing, a number of pledges passed out while fraternity brothers watched over an incapacitated Griffin, but did not call for medical assistance for hours, the suit says.

It also alleges they didn't do anything until the teen's lips started turning blue and it was too late. The complaint also charges the national fraternity with failing to supervise the local chapter or institute meaningful anti-hazing policies.

Attorney Douglas E. Feirberg, representing Griffin's parents, Timothy and Julie Griffin, said the Kendall Park, N.J., teen "did not die by simply over-consuming alcohol ... Brett died as a result of longstanding, dangerous fraternity rituals and the family intends to hold those responsible for his death accountable."

Attorney Michael P. Kelly, representing the national fraternity, said, "I have not seen anything to suggest liability on the part of my client, the national Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity."

He added that the national organization has "strict policies and procedures governing conduct."

Feirberg charged that those policies at Sigma Alpha Mu and other national fraternities are "flawed and dangerous" because they rely on "untrained, unprepared, unsuspecting kids" to implement them.

The legal action was filed under seal in New Castle County Superior Court in early April, and opened to the public Thursday by Superior Court Judge John A. Parkins Jr. It does not name UD as a defendant.

The suit was sealed to give officials time to serve paperwork to all parties, Parkins said.

According to the lawsuit and national hazing expert Dave Westol, the former chief executive of a national fraternity who now consults on anti-hazing measures, "Big Brother Night" is one of the "three deadliest nights" for fraternities.

"That is a phrase I've used for a number of years now," he said.

The other two are "bid night," when pledges are accepted, and initiation night, when pledges are made into full members.

Despite years of education efforts by national fraternities and sororities and schools, hazing has continued because it is a "power trip" for some who need to boost their egos, Westol said.

Citing studies on fraternities, the lawsuit states that pledges at ritual events are "subject to a number of psychological and emotional forces that undermine their ability to exercise self-restraint, and render them particularly suspectible to perceived 'encouragement' to drink to excess."

The lawsuit also states that the incident involving Griffin began at one home on Annabelle Street in Newark, rented by several fraternity members, where big brothers were assigned to pledges.

Griffin and others then went to a second house on Annabelle Street, also rented by chapter members, to meet with their big brother and "family" members.

At this meeting, according to court papers, pledges were given the "family drink" despite being under age and were instructed to drink "with their family."

On such nights, a pledge typically is expected to consume an entire bottle, according to the suit. "[T]he 'family drink' is particularly deadly because of the unavoidable association between belonging and finishing" it, the suit says.

The lawsuit says fraternity members knew Griffin had too much, was sick "and unable to walk or take care of himself," so they took turns watching over him for several hours. However, "none of them made the slightest effort to dial 911 during this extended period of time to summon the emergency services Brett needed to survive."

It was only around 3 a.m., when Griffin was observed "to be pale and his lips slightly blue" that a call was made, according to the lawsuit.

Griffin was unconscious when crews arrived and was transported to Christiana Hospital, where he died of acute alcohol poisoning.

In March, six students were arrested by Newark police and charged, most for misdemeanors related to providing alcohol to minors and underage possession and consumption of alcohol.

Only one of the six, Michael J. Bassett, 20, of Great Neck, N.Y., whom court papers identify as Griffin's "big brother," is named as a defendant in the civil lawsuit.

Bassett faces the most serious criminal charges brought by police, including criminal solicitation, providing alcohol to a minor, possession of marijuana with intent to deliver, conspiracy and maintaining a dwelling for drug sales.

The other students named as defendants in the civil suit include Jason M. Aaron of Melville, N.Y., the fraternity chapter president; Daniel Z. Troper of Short Hills, N.J., the chapter vice president, and Matthew P. Siracusa of Florida, N.Y., and Daniel P. Okin of Creeskill, N.J., -- both identified as pledge masters.

Attorneys, when they could be identified for each, either did not return calls for comment or declined to comment.

Lt. Brian Henry said Newark police do not have any additional charges pending, but he said the case remains an open investigation. "If we find out more information, we may revisit what we've done," which could lead to more charges.

The Delaware Attorney General's office declined to comment as did officials with the University of Delaware.