The Illinois Supreme Court and its Message to Hazing Participants on College Campuses
Sending a child off to college should be a joyful occasion. While this transition brings the promise of forging lifelong memories and friendships, it is often also marked by peer pressure to make dangerous decisions. A recent decision by the Illinois Supreme Court may change the party dynamic on college campuses all across the state.
The case is titled Bogenberger v. Pi Kappa Alpha Corporation, Inc., 2018 IL 120951. The facts surrounding the case involve the tragic death of a college fraternity pledge, David Bogenberger, while pledging to the Eta Nu Chapter of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois (the “NIU Chapter”). While attending the “Mom and Dad’s Night” pledge event, David was required to drink vodka until unconscious. If he showed any reluctance, the “Greek couples,” consisting of NIU Chapter and sorority female members, would call him derogatory names. Pledges, including David, were supplied “vomit buckets” and designated sleeping rooms. Once unconscious, the Greek couples would check the pledges as they slept to make sure they were positioned in such a way that they would not choke in their sleep. Sometime during the night at this event, David died. The special administrator of his estate filed a four-count lawsuit against the Pi Kappa Alpha national organizations (“National Organizations”), the NIU Chapter, its officers, and nonmember sorority women.
This Illinois Supreme Court decision only resolved the narrow question of who should remain in the lawsuit and who could be dismissed. The lower court will determine whether the defendants will be held responsible for David’s death. While the Illinois Supreme Court decision did not address the actual liability of the named defendants, the burden of defending their positions will be substantial no matter the end result.
Social Host Liability
The Illinois Supreme Court’s analysis of the first count was a matter of first impression: does the concept of social host liability apply to an alcohol-related hazing event? In general, Illinois law imposes no liability in situations of a sale or gift of alcoholic beverages, outside of a complaint brought pursuant to the Dramshop Act. The reason for the rule of social host liability is that, in bringing a claim for negligence, the connection between the sale or gift of alcohol is too remote to serve as a proximate cause for alcohol-related injuries. Although this has been a long-standing rule in Illinois with strong precedent in case law, in this case, the Court struck down this defense. The Court reasoned that alcohol-related hazing events involve the required consumption of alcohol to become a part of a school fraternity or sorority. This not only violated the Illinois hazing statute, but also did not involve the type of sale or gift of alcohol protected by the general rule of social host liability. Therefore, the negligence claims were heard by the Illinois Supreme Court.
Liability of the NIU Chapter, Active Members, Pledge Board Members and Officers
The special administrator of David’s estate alleged that the NIU Chapter, its officers, pledge board members, and active members forced David to participate in the Mom and Dad’s Night, required him to drink excessive amounts of alcohol, failed to call 911 or seek medical attention, and failed to implement a risk education program to protect David and other pledges. The Court found that injuries stemming from the hazing were foreseeable. The NIU Chapter and its members were expected to guard against harms associated with hazing to pledges, including David.
Liability of Nonmember Sorority Women
The last subject analyzed by the Court was the liability of the nonmember sorority women. The Court again noted that hazing injuries are reasonably foreseeable and likely to occur, especially at an event where the pledges are required to drink in excess. The Court held that the sorority women were active participants in the hazing event. Just like the NIU Chapter and its members, the sorority women filled cups with alcohol, harassed the pledges, and decorated vomit buckets. They conveyed the same message of “drink to become a member,” just like the fraternity members. The nonmember sorority women were properly named defendants and would remain in the lawsuit.
This case is just as much about the tragedy surrounding one pledge’s death as it is about these types of events on college campuses. The Illinois Supreme Court used this case to send a clear message: participate in hazing, pay the cost.
This Illinois Supreme Court did not make the determination that these classes of defendants were actually liable. This is a decision yet to be made by the lower court. However, the NIU chapter, its members, and the nonmember sorority women will remain in the case and incur the legal expenses to defend their positions. Whether or not the pledge’s estate prevails, the economics of this litigation will in and of itself be a heavy burden.
This opinion opens up legal liability to attendants and participants of fraternity and sorority initiation events, whether that person is a member of the fraternity organization or not. Perhaps this message, coupled with the tragedy of the untimely death of a young college student, will cause college students to think twice about the limits of their own social lives and their ideas of “fun.”