A court ruling in a civil lawsuit against Louisiana State University could make universities culpable for fraternity hazing deaths nationally.
The parents of Max Gruver are seeking damages from the university after the 18-year-old died in 2017 following a fraternity hazing ritual that involved drinking dangerous amounts of alcohol. The family’s attorneys contend the university has failed to protect male students in Greek life in the same way it had with women in sororities.
In a ruling on the suit, Judge Shelly Dick on Friday partially denied the university’s attempt to dismiss the case and said, “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.”
Gruver was a freshman in 2017 when he was pledging for Phi Delta Theta at LSU. As part of pledging, he had to “chug hard liquor,” which led to his death. And earlier this week, a jury found Matthew Naquin, 21, guilty of negligent homicide. He faces up to five years in prison. According to those who were there for the hazing, Naquin appeared to lead the ritual and targeted Gruver.
Public attitudes toward fraternities have grown increasingly critical in recent years as young men die in hazing incidents with what seems like little accountability or course correction.
Gruver’s family is seeking $25 million. Among other things, the suit argues the university had failed to warn male students about the dangers of hazing and failed to address the bad behaviors of fraternities while disciplining sororities that acted out of line.
The selective enforcement on the basis of sex amounts to a Title IX violation, said the family’s attorney, Douglas Fierberg. Title IX is a federal law meant to prevent sex discrimination in colleges that receive federal money. The law is generally associated with men and women’s athletic programs and in recent years has been tied to sexual assault and harassment investigations.
In its motion to dismiss the case, the university argued the family was trying to use Title IX too broadly. The university also said the plaintiffs had failed to prove Gruver was sexually harassed or discriminated against based on his gender.
Dick denied in part the university’s motion to dismiss as it related to the Title IX claims, which means the case can move forward.
To hold universities accountable for the behavior of fraternities through Title IX is new ground, said Fierberg, an attorney with a long resume of representing families whose children have died in hazing incidents. He argued that the court’s decision will set “new standards” for universities.
“The entire education system has to come to grips with this,” Fierberg told USA TODAY.
The university hadn’t seen the court decision as of Saturday and would not comment on it beyond to say “this was merely a preliminary motion,” wrote spokesman Ernie Ballard.
After the Naquin verdict, the university issued a statement that said, “Hazing is an irresponsible and dangerous activity that we do not tolerate at LSU.”
The suit clearly pushes the boundaries of Title IX enforcement, said Peter Lake, a professor of law at Stetson University and an expert on Title IX.
“It kicks a door open and says you can go root around at a college policy enforcement system,” Lake said. “And if you see gender variations of any kind, you’ve got enough information to ask a federal court to hear a case.”