Yale Crash Victim’s Family Settles Lawsuit Against Fraternity

The family of one of four Yale students killed in a 2003 crash on their return trip from a fraternity event has settled a negligence lawsuit against the Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) fraternity.

Court records show that the lawsuit against both the national organization and the Yale chapter, filed in 2005 by the parents of Nicholas Grass ‘05, was settled under undisclosed terms on September 5th, after years of legal battle between the victim’s family and DKE. Grass was one of nine students returning to campus from a DKE event in New York City when their SUV collided with a tractor-trailer (who had crashed in an earlier accident) on Interstate 95 around 5 a.m. on January 17, 2003.

The collision killed the SUV driver, Sean Fenton, 20, of Newport Beach, California, and three passengers—Grass, 19; Andrew Dwyer, 19, of Hobe Sound, Florida; and Kyle Burnat, 19, of Atlanta, Georgia. Grass and Burnat were pitchers on Yale’s baseball team.

Five other Yale students in the SUV were injured, including members of the football team. All were members of DKE.

The lawsuit, filed in 2005, claimed negligence on the part of the fraternity. Grass’ family asserted in the suit that DKE held responsibility for safely transporting students from the New York event to New Haven and ought to have chosen a more cautious driver. It further suggested that the driver of the car, Fenton, was sleep deprived the night of the accident because of the fraternity’s ”Hell Week”, which was ongoing at the time and included frequent mandatory initiation activities.

A September 2012 Connecticut Supreme Court ruling decided that, despite protests from DKE, the fraternity could be sued on the grounds alleged by Grass’ family.

The accident occurred in icy conditions along a stretch of Interstate 95 when a 42,000-pound truck broke through the barriers dividing the freeway. Fenton was unable to stop the car before it collided with the jack-knifed truck’s trailer.

An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, concluded in 2005, found that the government bore at least partial responsibility for the accident. According to the report, the median dividing the freeway, standing 32 inches tall, was too short to stop the truck from overriding it.

“They were never intended or even capable of withstanding medium-sized vehicles, let alone heavy vehicles,” senior research director at Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety Gerald Donaldson said at the time. “There’s a very narrow range that you can use them in. [The Federal Highway Administration] knew that barrier provided no protection whatsoever. This highway authority knew this would occur eventually, but they did nothing to prevent it.”

The lawsuit also claimed 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. Other victims’ families also sued the state and the two companies. It was reported that claims against the state were dismissed because of government immunity from lawsuits, while the construction companies entered into settlements.

Grass pitched for the Yale baseball team and was the first native of Holyoke, Massachusetts to attend Yale since 1942, then Pierson College Dean Christa Dove said in 2003. In his obituary in the News, friends and family described him as a talented baseball player and dedicated role model to younger students.

The summer before his death, Grass was named an All-star in the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League.

Was this tragic accident caused by the sleep deprived fraternity brother or the driver of the 42,000 pound tractor trailer who had an accident prior to breaking through the median, crashing into the college students’ SUV?

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