The family of a Clemson University fraternity pledge at the start of the 2014 school year has prompted his family to file a $25 million wrongful death lawsuit against the school, the national fraternity and three of the fraternity’s brothers. The local chapter of the fraternity was initially also named as a defendant, but was dissolved by the time a complaint was filed.
As a 19-year-old political science major at the school in Oconee County (about an hour northwest of Anderson), he had sought membership in the local chapter of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity. He was on an early morning run with a number of members of the group in September 2014 when he died.
Later that same day, his body was found below the State 93 bridge over Lake Hartwell. A coroner determined he died from head injuries from falling onto the rocks in shallow water. His mother said she always believed his death was the result of hazing, but there hadn’t been any solid proof – until August, when a new witness came forward.
That witness – who as of yet is not named – said he witnessed someone being forced to walk along the narrow railing of the bridge.
Although the statements made by the individual have been met with skepticism by the local sheriff’s office and local prosecutor, which is why no criminal charges have been filed on its basis, the family is nonetheless pressing forward with the civil wrongful death lawsuit.
One of the differences between criminal and civil cases is the proof burden. Whereas criminal convictions generally require proof beyond a reasonable doubt, while civil cases are generally decided by a preponderance of the evidence (meaning “more likely than not”). The same conduct can produce civil and criminal liability, but a civil case can be brought even when criminal charges are never filed (or visa versa).
The national chapter of the fraternity, meanwhile, insists the teen died as a result of voluntarily jumping into the water from the bridge, and that his death was the result of his own negligence.
Even if it were true that the teen bore some responsibility for his own demise, his family could still potentially collect damages for his death, so long as his negligence doesn’t exceed that of others. This is known as the rule of comparative negligence, and in South Carolina, the recovery of damages will be reduced in proportion to the plaintiff’s negligence. Compare that to North Carolina, where any finding of negligence on behalf of plaintiff (or, in this case, decedent) would bar all damage recovery.
According to the lawsuit filed by decedent’s parents, however, the pledge was not to blame. At 5:30 a.m., they say, some of the initiated members demanded some 30 pledges engage in a grueling morning run. At some point, according to the lawsuit, one of the defendant members confronted decedent, who had not brought with him the fast food biscuits he was told to bring. Soon after that, the pledge fell over the railing of the bridge and into the lake.
The lawsuit states the fraternity had a long-held tradition of pressuring or requiring pledges to jump off bridges into the lake and then swim to shore. In this case, the teen’s disappearance wasn’t reported to authorities until 1:15 p.m. This was seven hours after he had fallen into the lake.
The school had already planned on suspending the fraternity due to “unprecedented conduct” issues during the first three weeks of the school year, which included hazing and also “sexual misconduct.” The school later found the fraternity guilty of hazing, underage drinking, harm to an individual, failure to comply with a request and disruption of ethical and community standards. It has been suspended until December 2019, and thus effectively dissolved.
Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
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