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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Ind. Courts - "Wabash College lawsuit raises questions about who polices fraternity hazing"

Brian Yost v. Wabash College, which will be argued before the Supreme Court Tuesday, April 23rd, at Indiana University-East (Richmond), in a rare traveling argument, is the subject of a good front-page story today in the Indianapolis Star, reported by Tim Evans. (You can find the case details at the ILB's Upcoming Oral Arguments.) The long Star story today begins:

A case before the Indiana Supreme Court this month could set the stage for the state’s first jury trial examining the responsibility that colleges and fraternities have to protect students from hazing.

Before that can happen, though, the state’s high court must decide a more basic question: Does the personal injury lawsuit filed by former Wabash College student Brian Yost even merit a trial?

Yost’s broader case centers on whether Wabash or Phi Kappa Psi (known on campus as Phi Psi) had a duty to ensure his safety — specifically after a string of hazing and alcohol-related problems at the private school in Crawfordsville. More than a half-dozen incidents since 2000, including the deaths of two underage students who had been drinking, prompted sanctions against fraternities.

If the high court grants Yost his day in court, it will be the first case in Indiana to address civil liability in connection with hazing.

And should Yost prevail, the case could significantly expand the limited legal duty colleges and universities have to safeguard students.

“Institutions are going to need to understand that there could be greater consequences for their failure to more actively engage in the behavior of institutions that are on university-owned property,” explained Andrew R. Klein, a professor at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis.

Indiana courts traditionally have declined to hold colleges and universities accountable for protecting students from injuries on campus. It is a point attorneys for Wabash make in a brief filed with the Supreme Court.

“The broad, all-encompassing duty, if created (in Yost’s case),” Wabash contends, “is such a dramatic change from existing Indiana law that if it is to be established, it is a matter for the General Assembly.”

Wabash is not alone in struggling with Greek hazing issues, but two factors could differentiate Yost’s case from others in which courts found schools did not have a broad duty to protect students, said Carmel personal injury attorney Stephen M. Wagner.

Unlike most fraternity and sorority houses on other Indiana campuses, which are owned by the organizations, Wabash owned the fraternity house where Yost was injured. The college and fraternity also were aware of past hazing and alcohol abuse, and had taken steps to monitor and discipline violators.

Wagner, who has lawsuits pending against Wabash in the deaths of students in 2007 and 2008, said the school’s landlord status could form a stronger basis for liability. That’s because Indiana law requires property owners to protect guests from “reasonably foreseeable” dangers. The knowledge of past incidents and the actions taken by Wabash and the fraternity to address them, he added, could bolster the argument that Yost’s injuries were foreseeable.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on April 17, 2013 11:15 AM
Posted to Indiana Courts