Connecticut Supreme Court Says Fraternity Can be Sued in Fatal Crash

A Connecticut Supreme Court has ruled that a fraternity can be sued for alleged negligence in connection with a 2003 crash killing four Yale University students, including two members of the school’s baseball team.

The students were returning from a Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity event hosted for pledges in New York City on January 17, 2003, when their SUV, driving at a high speed, slammed into a tractor-trailer that had crashed on Interstate 95 in Fairfield at about 5 am.

Relatives of one of the victims alleged in a lawsuit that fraternity leaders failed to provide safe transportation home from the event. They explained that the driver, who was a Yale student and fraternity member, was sleep-deprived during the fraternity’s “Hell-Week,” when pledges are allegedly hazed.

However, the Supreme Court overturned a lower court decision in favor of the fraternity and said the lawsuit can proceed.

The crash killed the driver, Sean Fenton, 20, of Newport Beach, California, and three of four backseat passengers; Andrew Dwyer, 19, of Hobe Sound, Florida, Nicholas Grass, 19, of Holyoke, Massachusetts, and Kyle Burnat, 19, of Atlanta, Georgia.  Two of the victims, Grass and Burnat, were pitchers on the baseball team.

There were five other students in the SUV who were injured, including members of the football team.

The Supreme Court’s ruling came in a lawsuit filed in 2005 against the national office of Delta Kappa Epsilon, the fraternity’s Yale chapter, the state Department of Transportation and two construction companies that had worked on the highway.

The lawsuit claims that the fraternity had a duty to provide safe transportation home from the event and that it negligently chose a student as the driver, even though he had had little sleep that week and was up for almost 20 hours prior to the accident.

It was alleged that the fraternity leaders instructed the pledges to get in the back of an SUV with a very young, inexperienced driver, who was sleep-deprived, rather than getting a car service home from the New York City trip.

The lawsuit claimed that the state Department of Transportation and two construction companies were liable for alleged safety hazards at the highway construction site where the tractor-trailer crashed. The other victims’ families sued the state and the two construction companies. The claims against the state were dismissed due to government immunity from lawsuits, while the construction companies entered into settlements with families of the victims.

The trial judge found in favor of the fraternity, saying that national and local fraternity leaders did not owe the Grass a “duty of care” while transporting him back to New Haven from New York City. That ruling was appealed to the Supreme Court, who ruled that the fraternity had no duty to provide transportation, but once it did, “it assumed a duty to do so safely.”

The court said it was up to a jury to decide whether the fraternity was negligent in having Fenton drive the students home.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigated the accident and found plenty of blame, including poor highway conditions, speeding, fatigue and lack of seat belt use.

The agency concluded that the tractor-trailer driver was probably driving too fast on ice and snow when he lost control of his vehicle. Part of the tractor-trailer, which was traveling north, went over the median barrier and collided with two other vehicles in the southbound lanes.

Fenton probably was suffering from a combination of fatigue, lack of highway lighting and distraction from the collisions in the southbound lanes, and likely did not see that part of the tractor-trailer was in the northbound left lane, the NTSB said.

Relatives of all the crash victims, including Fenton, also have a pending federal lawsuit against the tractor-trailer manufacturer for not putting enough lights on the truck’s trailer.

Many factors led to this fatal crash. The combination of lack of sleep, lack of lighting on the highway and perhaps, inexperience, may have contributed to this tragedy.   Do you think the driver of the tractor-trailer was to blame due to his driving at excessive speed in icy conditions? Or do you think the fraternity is negligent for not providing their pledges transportation from New York City without enough sleep?

Feel free to comment on this blog post.  Contact one of our Gacovino Lake attorneys at 1-800-246-HURT (4878).

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