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College Binge Drinking: Law Suits Bring Attention to Tragic Binge-Drinking Deaths
While the effects of binge drinking on the body are fairly obvious, less attention is paid to the negative consequences such behavior has on safety, education, freedom, and, more obscurely, the family wallet. Now more than ever, perpetrators of hazing-related drinking tragedies find themselves facing a governmental judicial system, rather than a college or Greek one. Civil juries are being asked to impose a duty on friends of binge drinkers to keep an eye on their buddy, a somewhat novel approach. Parents are being held accountable when incidents occur on their property, in their cars, or during their watch.
Counseling your college student to attend a treatment center for binge drinking before tragedy strikes is one way to ensure that your family will not fall victim to this dangerous epidemic. While it is true that college students who binge drink will not necessarily continue to have alcohol problems as an adult, allowing the behavior to continue during college puts everyone at risk.
While under the influence of drugs or alcohol, unsuspecting young adults can fall victim to crimes such as theft, battery, and rape. Eighty percent of students who had been subject to unwanted intercourse were under the influence of alcohol or drugs during the incident. Perpetrators often try to blame criminal behavior on their own intoxication, with little success. Such early sexual trauma often leads to significant mental health, substance abuse, or emotional issues for victims later in life. Also, according to a survey of school administrators, almost forty percent of academic problems stem from alcohol use.
Wherever there is tragedy, lawsuits inevitably follow. Some grieving parents of binge-drinking victims lash out, needing someone (other than their dead child) to blame. For others, litigation is the only way to get answers from individuals who may believe that revealing details about the incident would be betraying the victim or “ratting out” other friends. In other cases, someone else really could be to blame. For any tragic binge drinking accident, the potential defendant pool often includes school administrators, sorority and fraternity organizers at both local and national levels, classmates, parents of classmates, and drinking establishments.
One of the most notorious binge drinking casualties occurred right in my own backyard. Scott Krueger, an 18-year-old fraternity pledge at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) stunned Boston’s academic community when he died of alcohol poisoning after drinking what amounted to 15 shots of liquor in one hour. Apparently, even geniuses make rather common teenage errors in judgment regarding one’s ability to handle vast quantities of alcohol. In 2000, Krueger’s family settled with MIT for $6 million.
Nineteen-year-old college sophomore Arman Partamian died on March 1, 2009 after participating in a hazing at an unsanctioned fraternity at SUNY, Geneseo. In the wrongful death claim filed by the boy’s father, it is alleged that a group of students plied the boy with so much alcohol that he died as a result. The suit seeks $2.5 million from six students and two co-owners of the property. In a related criminal proceeding, two former fraternity members were charged with hazing and criminally negligent homicide; a third pled guilty to a misdemeanor in return for three months of weekends in jail.
Amanda Jax, who drank herself to death at her 21st birthday party, consumed multiple drinks in less than two hours. Not surprisingly, the birthday girl’s drinks were bought for her by several friends. After escorting Amanda home to an apartment, court documents claim that two of her friends looked after her. Jax had been unconscious for an hour and had vomited twice before the friends retired for the evening; they did not call 911 until 7am the next morning after they discovered her cold body.
Personal injury attorneys continue to come up with novel ways to impose liability on third parties after a binge drinking tragedy occurs. Jax’s parents are suing the owners of the bar for wrongful death. In a more surprising move, the parents are also suing Jax’s friends, claiming that they are liable for their daughter having had too much to drink. The complaint alleges that Jax was in the care of friends who gave alcohol to an obviously intoxicated person, creating an unreasonable risk of harm and failing to exercise reasonable care in preventing harm to her.
Although no mention is made of Jax’s liability for her own death in the Complaint, defense attorneys are already hammering the point home. In Minnesota, where the incident occurred, there is no duty to care for a drinking companion. A lone Court of Appeals opinion cited in the complaint seems to impose a duty to act when a person cannot protect herself. The case will hinge on whether or not Jax had the ability to protect herself from the harm she suffered that night, as removing her from the bar effectively prevented anyone else but her friends from helping her.
The breadth and scope of liability for college binge drinking is felt at sororities and fraternities across the country, and no more strongly than at the University of Texas. In December of 2005, 18-year-old Jack Phoummarath became another victim of the binge drinking epidemic. While living at the Lambda Phi Epsilon fraternity near the Austin campus, Jack drank himself to death. He had a blood alcohol level of .50. Postmortem studies showed that the teen drank all night at a frat party in order to officially becoming a member of the club. He died alone in his room, his body not being discovered until the next day. His family sued the fraternity, at both the national and local levels, along with over forty past and present frat brothers. In addition, three former leaders of the fraternity plead “no contest” to hazing charges stemming from the death; they will serve probation and community service.
Millie Anne Cavanaugh, Esq. is a former insurance defense attorney currently specializing in immigration and citizenship law. She is licensed to practice law in California and Massachusetts. The information contained herein is provided for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as a solicitation for your business or as legal advice on any subject matter. You should not act or refrain from acting on the basis of this information without seeking independent legal advice.