Max Gruver was only 18 when he died of alcohol poisoning in a hazing incident at Louisiana State University in 2017.
In criminal court, Matthew Naquin, 21, a member of Phi Delta Theta at LSU, was recently found guilty of negligent homicide for his role in the hazing that resulted in Gruver’s death. Naquin is facing five years in prison.
Gruver’s parents also believe that LSU should also be held accountable for their son’s death, and have filed a $25 million civil lawsuit.
The argument in their lawsuit relies on Title IX, the federal law that was designed to enforce equal treatment of men and women by institutions that receive federal funds. The lawsuit alleges that LSU failed Gruver and other male students by not overseeing and disciplining fraternities with the same diligence that they oversee and discipline LSU sororities.
Male students and fraternities at LSU were not properly cautioned about hazing and dangerous drinking, while female students and sororities at LSU have received more discipline and oversight, the lawsuit says.
LSU maintains that it did not discriminate against Max Gruver, male students and fraternities on the basis of sex, and has asked the judge to dismiss the case, arguing that the lawsuit’s interpretation of Title IX was too broad.
Judge Shelly Dick has declined LSU’s request to dismiss the case, giving trial lawyers across the country reason to pay attention. Her ruling says, “If these facts are proven, a jury may infer that LSU’s policy created the heightened risk to Greek male student of serious injury or death by hazing, thereby inflicting the injury alleged herein.”
Using Title IX in this case is “not a stretch,” attorney Courtney Bullard, an expert in Title IX, says. As she sees it, Gruver’s attorney, Douglas Fierberg is using “an interesting, new avenue to hold institutions accountable.”
Using Title IX in hazing cases could become more widespread, Bullard says.
Bullard has served as a legal adviser to top university administrators including chancellors, vice chancellors, and Title IX coordinators. Bullard is the host of the new podcast “The Law and Higher Ed.”
Dane S. Ciolino, Alvin R. Christovich distinguished professor of law at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, believes schools should not be strictly liable for the damages caused by its students.
When it comes to hazing, “there is only so much a university can do,” Ciolino says. “It can pass rules banning dangerous practices and make some reasonable effort to enforce them through a disciplinary process.” Beyond that, there is little else they can do, he says.