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Illinois Supreme Court Holds: National Fraternity Organizations Owed No Duty to Local Pledge Who Died During Alcohol-Related Hazing Event

By Michael J. Bankhead

On January 19, 2018, as a matter of first impression, the Illinois Supreme Court in the case of Bogenberger v. Pi Kappa Alpha Corporation, Inc. et al., 2018 WL 476648 (2018), found that the Pi Kappa Alpha national and international organizations (“Nationals”) owed no duty to a local pledge who died from alcohol intoxication during a mandatory pledge event at a local chapter, in which pledges were required to consume excessive amounts of alcohol. The Supreme Court held that there was no special relationship between the Nationals and the pledges that would impose direct liability, and there were insufficient allegations of control by the Nationals over the local chapter that would establish agency for the purpose of holding the Nationals vicariously liable for the local chapter’s actions. The Supreme Court also held that the local chapter, its members and officers, and several non-member sorority women did owe a duty to the deceased pledge, and could be held liable for negligence, by creating a limited exception to the rule against social host liability for injuries caused by alcohol-related hazing events.

Plaintiff’s complaint alleged that the decedent, David, was a college freshman and prospective pledge of the Eta Nu chapter of Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity at Northern Illinois University in Dekalb, Illinois. As a prospective pledge, David and his fellow pledges were required to attend a mandatory pledge event called “Mom and Dad Night.” The pledges knew they would be required to drink excessive amounts of alcohol during the event. Members of the fraternity and non-member sorority women were to serve as the pledges’ “Greek Mother and Father.” The “couple” was to ask the pledges various questions and give them a specific amount of vodka regardless of their answers. The event called for most, if not all pledges, to become unconscious due to the excessive amount of alcohol consumed. The pledge event was not registered with the university as required by the university’s policy.

Over the course of about an hour and a half, each pledge had consumed three to five full cups of vodka. As pledges began to lose consciousness, they were brought to previously designated rooms in the fraternity house. David was placed in a bed in his “Greek Father’s” room with his head orientated to the side so that he would not choke if he vomited. Sometime during the night, David died of alcohol intoxication.

The Pi Kappa Alpha Nationals were alleged to have encouraged similar pledging events; were engaged in the business of organizing, promoting and recruiting membership; supervised, advised, required and controlled the local chapters conduct; and had the power expel, suspend or place restrictive remedial measures on the local chapter. The national organization did have anti-hazing policies in place that prohibited events that utilized alcohol.

David’s father filed suit in 2013, alleging wrongful death and survival claims against Pi Kappa Alpha Nationals, 22 members and officers of the local chapter, 16 sorority women, the landlord for the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity house, and the NIU chapter of Pi Kappa Alpha. The Circuit Court dismissed the complaint in its entirety in 2014, finding that social host liability does not exist under Illinois state law, noting that under the social host rule, no cause of action arises out of the sale or gift of alcoholic beverages because the law views the cause of the injury as the consumption and resulting intoxication, rather than the sale or gift of the beverage.

The First District Appellate Court partially overturned the decision of the lower court. The First District affirmed the dismissal of the complaint as to the Nationals, the fraternity’s landlord and the non-member sorority women, but reversed the decisions as to the local chapter and its members and officers.

Plaintiff appealed the dismissal of the Pi Kappa Alpha Nationals and the non-member sorority women. The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the finding of the Appellate Court dismissing the Nationals. The Supreme Court also affirmed the Appellate Court’s decision as to the the local chapter, its members and officers, and reversed the ruling as to the non-member sorority women, holding that they owed a duty to the decedent, as the rule against social host liability is inapplicable to an alcohol-related hazing event.

The Supreme Court held the there was no special relationship between the decedent and the Nationals that would give rise to an affirmative duty to pledges like the decedent that could impose direct liability.  It further held that the plaintiff’s complaint did not allege sufficient facts to establish an agency relationship that would make the Nationals vicariously liable for the local chapter’s actions.  In so holding, the Court noted that the complaint alleged insufficient facts to establish that the Nationals exercised sufficient “control” over the local chapter and its members. There were no allegations that the Nationals had any control over which pledging events the local chapter actually held or how each chapter planned or carried out its pledge events, and its only power over the local chapters was to take remedial actions to discipline the chapter “after the fact.” The Court further noted that the Nationals’ rules specifically prohibited alcohol-related hazing events.

In holding that the local chapter, its members, and the non-member sorority women owed a duty to the decedent, the Court reasoned that unlike the sale or gift of alcohol, the required consumption of alcohol from a hazing event, which is in violation of Illinois’ hazing statute 720 ILCS 5/12C–50, is not too remote to serve as the proximate cause of intoxication and the resulting injury. Thus, the court carved out a limited exception to alcohol-related liability, finding that the rule against social host liability is inapplicable to an alcohol-related hazing event.

Worth noting is that Judge Theis’ dissent opined that the alleged conduct by the Nationals established that they did exercise “some degree of control” over the local chapter, which he believed was sufficient to impose a special relationship that would establish a direct duty on behalf of the Nationals to the decedent pledge.  The dissenting opinion cited to several other state court decisions that have held that control depends upon many facts, including the national organization’s constitution and bylaws; the national organization’s financial ties to local chapters; the national organization’s rules and guidelines regarding risk and crisis management; the national organization’s ability to dictate to local chapters specific procedures regarding recruitment and initiation; the national organization’s ability to censure and punish local chapters and their members; the national organization’s oversight via its own personnel to ensure compliance with fraternity and university policies, as well as local laws; and the national organization’s knowledge that its policies are not being followed or that the local chapter is engaging in inappropriate behavior. These facts have allowed other courts to establish that national organizations may owe a duty of reasonable care to a pledge.

Accordingly, while the Pi Kappa Alpha Nationals in the Bogenberger case were held not to owe a duty to the deceased pledge, it is important to note that both the majority and dissenting opinions acknowledge that the amount of control exercised by a national fraternity organization is the key factor in determining whether liability can be imposed on a national organization for the actions of its local chapters.

Should you have any questions regarding this Court decision, or require assistance with an alcohol-related liability issue, please contact Ryan Greely at (312) 506-4462 or rgr[email protected].