Parents File Wrongful Death Suit against Utah State


The parents of an 18-year-old Utah State University freshman who died of alcohol poisoning have filed a wrongful death suit against the university for “benign neglect.” Their son was rushing Sigma Nu fraternity when he died. Police say the teen’s blood alcohol content was more than 0.35. This is over four times the legal limit to drive a vehicle, and an incredibly inebriated state to be in.

A Utah State spokesman says the school’s safety concerns don’t extend beyond the campus. Basically, if students are participating in something that is not related to the university, the university washes its hands. However, the parents of the dead student allege Utah State allowed this kind of conduct at frats to go on year after year.

Who’s Responsibility?

Are universities culpable in these types of situations? Every year a few students will drink his or herself to death, and frats often come up as the place where the drinking was taking place. Many times the frat will be boarded up and the chapter closed at that school. But would the same thing have happened had these students survived? Anyone who has gone to college knows drinking is going on. The students, their parents, the people who live in that town, and those in charge of the university all realize that drinking is just part of it. It seems to be a rite of passage in many aspects of college living, including Greek life. Still, university leaders can only do so much when the students are out on their own. What about individual responsibility.

Remember that most of the students are between 18 and 22 years of age. Young and still mostly willing to do things they’re told not to do; it’s part of growing up. The freshman are away from their parents for the first time and most have bought into the idea that college is a place to “experiment,” whatever that means to them. But is a laissez faire attitude on the part of those who parents trust to keep their children safe a good thing? Universities are not free markets (except they charge tens of thousands of dollars for their “product”), and should not be seen as such.

If a student is raped on campus, then the university may face a lawsuit for having an unsafe premise. However, if that student is raped across the street from the campus, then the university can claim they don’t have any say over what goes on in the town. Perhaps it’s the same thing with drinking. If the student drinks and dies on campus, then it’s the university’s responsibility. If it’s across the street, then the university can wash its hands. But if there is some kind of affiliation, even loosely, as there is in frats, then whose responsibility is it?

Clearly the gray area isn’t working when it comes to this. Perhaps universities need to clearly define what is, and is not, their area of responsibility. Especially since some fraternities never seem to learn or want to take responsibility for what goes on, believing there will always be someone else to clean up the mess.