Underage drinking at fraternity parties and events, a historical reality on college campuses throughout the country is unacceptable and can be legally disastrous – especially when it results in serious injury or death. Today’s column discusses a case resulting from an incident at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (“SAE”) fraternity chapter at the University of Southern California (“USC”).
[Disclosure: Jim Simon and Peter Cuttitta, of Porter Simon, along with co-counsel Andrew Schwartz, of Walnut Creek, recently resolved a wrongful death case on behalf of a family whose 19-year-old son died as the result of an alcohol infused hazing incident at the UNR chapter of Sigma Nu.]
FRATERNITY PARTY INJURY
In 2013, Carson Barenborg, a 19-year-old student at another university, attended a party at California Gamma Chapter of SAE at USC. Barenborg and others were served alcohol by Cal Gamma members. Barenborg consumed 5 to 7 alcoholic beverages and some cocaine. Fraternity members set up a makeshift dance platform 6 or 7 feet off the ground using wooden tables. Another person, according to the court opinion, “knocked [Barenborg] off of the platform.” Barenborg suffered serious injuries.
In prior years the local SAE chapter had been involved in multiple disciplinary violations involving hazing, including sponsoring and permitting excessive underage drinking. After the Barenborg incident, the local chapter was placed on probation. Shortly thereafter the fraternity members violated the alcohol ban and the chapter was suspended. Although the decision does not discuss Cal Gamma’s liability, presumably that claim settled or is going to trial.
PLAINTIFF SUES USC
Barenborg sued USC claiming it was liable for Cal Gamma’s negligence under the facts presented which included the local chapter’s violation of university rules restricting alcohol use at fraternities. The trial court found in favor of Barenborg ruling there were issues of fact for a jury as to whether a “special relationship” exited between she and USC insofar as USC took it upon itself to mandate some controls over fraternity parties. However, the appellate court in this Opinion reversed and concluded USC had no duty to protect members of the public like Barenborg from the conduct of third-party fraternity members.
SUIT AGAINST THE NATIONAL FRATERNITY SAE
Barenborg’s next argument was against the national fraternal organization of SAE. The basic claim against SAE national was that Cal Gamma was a recognized chapter of SAE and as such, the national organization owed a duty to Barenborg. Barenborg also claimed Cal Gamma had a “special relationship” with SAE which put SAE in a position to protect against the risk of what happened to Barenborg. Here the trial court agreed with SAE. Plaintiff Barenborg appealed.
The Court of Appeal noted that “no reported California decision has considered the existence of a special relationship between a national fraternity and its local chapters.” So apparently the case was one of first impression—give the court a chance to hold national fraternal organizations responsible for the conduct of their sponsored chapters. The court declined the invitation.
The Court of Appeal concluded that SAE owed no duty to control its local chapter’s conduct – reasoning that fraternities’ national organizations are unable to monitor activities of their respective local chapters. Without an ability to monitor the day-to-day activities of local chapters the court reasoned, there could be no duty to control the conduct of the members of those chapters, even though SAE national has 200 local chapters and 13,500 members; imposes bylaws on its local chapters; grants charters to local chapters; allows use of its name, insignias, and rituals; arranges for the local chapters’ purchase of fraternity houses; collects dues, and reports for local chapters, and requires that they submit to inspections—all the while professing in its governing documents that it “has no power to control the activities or operations of any [local chapter]” Personally, I find that a stretch and out of sync with other areas of law where liability is imposed under similar circumstances.
AGENT OF SAE?
Barenborg also argued that Cal Gamma was the agent of SAE national and as such it had a direct duty to protect her. Again, the Court of Appeal found no liability and ruled the national organization did not have an obligation to control the local chapter’s operations or members. SAE was held not liable for Cal Gamma’s conduct in sponsoring the party which resulted in Barenborg’s injuries.
The decision seems out of touch with the reality of college life and the responsibility of both universities and the national fraternal organizations they allow to be affiliated with them, to accept a share of the responsibility for alcohol related incidents which result in injury at fraternity parties.
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada, with offices in Truckee and Tahoe City, California, and Reno, Nevada. Jim’s practice areas include: real estate, development, construction, business, HOA’s, contracts, personal injury, accidents, mediation and other transactional matters. He may be reached at email@example.com or www.portersimon.com.
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