Greek organizations carry torches of tradition and community at many U.S. colleges and universities, but they are also tied to tragedy. Over the past several months, fraternities, sororities and other social organizations have been in the news for alleged sexual assault and other misconduct, some of which has been linked to accidental death and suicide.
As a general matter, what liability might an institution of higher education face when a student is seriously injured (or dies) in connection with Greek activities?
In the mid-to-late 20th century, various legal doctrines effectively protected colleges and universities from liability related to purported failure to protect the safety of students. Over time, however, a number of new legal theories and court rulings have eroded these legal protections for institutions, making room for arguments that schools must protect students even where they place themselves in harm’s way (e.g., by abusing drugs or alcohol) or when injuries are the result of the actions of third parties.
The Furek Decision
Furek v. University of Delaware is a leading example of this. In Furek, the University was found to be negligent when a student received serious and permanent burn scars due to a fraternity hazing incident. The University had policy directives prohibiting hazing and backed these policies with warnings, meetings, and letters to students and fraternities reminding them of the prohibition. Evidence showed that, while the University was aware of general hazing activities, it nevertheless allowed them to continue unabated.
The University argued that it was not liable for negligence because it had no special relationship with its students—and thus no duty to protect them from events like this. The court disagreed, finding that the institution had a duty to protect its students arising out of its hazing policy, the communications it had with its students about hazing and potential disciplinary action, and its awareness that dangerous activities were occurring. The court also found that, because of the University’s ownership of the land where the injury occurred, the University “ha[d] a duty to regulate and supervise foreseeable dangerous activities occurring on its property. That duty extends to the negligent or intentional activities of third persons.”
To be sure, different state laws and details of a particular incident at your school could lead a court in your jurisdiction to reach a conclusion that is inconsistent with Furek. But the Furek decision (and others like it) serve as a warning to colleges and universities about potential liability for fraternity-related activities and injuries.
What it means for you
Your institution could be found liable for injuries related to Greek activities and functions. There are some steps you can be taking now to lower the risk involved:
- Review and evaluate your institutions’ policies related to fraternities and other student organizations. Follow these policies and discipline these groups as appropriate for violations.
- Check your state’s laws regarding hazing. Many require colleges and universities to have and enforce hazing policies, with potential civil liability for not doing so or for allowing known conduct of this sort to continue without taking action.
- Gain an understanding of your institutions’ relationship with these organizations and the extent to which the current state of that relationship intersects with your institutional mission, operational goals, and risk-management planning.