A Yale University fraternity and its members were sued by two victims of a deadly 2011 accident at a tailgate party during the annual football game with Harvard University.
The estate of Nancy Barry, a 30-year-old woman who was killed in the incident, and Sarah Short, a Yale student who was injured, sued the school’s chapter of Sigma Phi Epsilon in Connecticut Superior Court in New Haven Dec. 30, according to court records.
The crash occurred when a U-Haul truck loaded with kegs of beer lost control and struck a crowd of tailgaters in the parking lot outside the Yale Bowl in New Haven. Following the accident, the school banned kegs at athletic events and placed restrictions on tailgate parties.
The suits by Short and Barry’s estate name the school’s chapter of SigEp as a defendant, along with more than 80 members of the fraternity. The plaintiffs previously sued Yale and the fraternity’s Richmond, Virginia-based national affiliate.
National fraternities often seek to avoid responsibility by casting blame on local chapters, which may have few or no assets, or on the fraternity brothers themselves. In the past, lawyers for national fraternities have urged plaintiffs to sue their members, according to documents obtained by Bloomberg News. The students must often turn to their parents’ homeowners insurance to settle claims.
Not only did the SigEp organization disown its Yale unit, said Paul Edwards, an attorney for Barry’s estate, it never took any steps to create a legal entity for the chapter or to protect its members from liability.
“It’s really a double whammy for the Yale members,” Edwards, a partner in Woodbridge, Connecticut-based Deakin Edwards & Clark LLP, said Wednesday in a phone interview.
Barry was working in fashion design and merchandising at the time of her death, Edwards said. The alleged driver of the U-Haul, fraternity member Brendan Ross, was on his way to a SigEp tailgate party outside the Yale Bowl when the accident occurred, according to the lawsuits.
Ross, who was named as a defendant in the earlier suits, wasn’t named as a defendant in the suits filed last month. Attorneys representing Ross didn’t immediately return voice-mail messages seeking comment on the litigation.
“The economic damages are in excess of $2.5 million,” Edwards said. “That doesn’t take into account the loss of enjoyment of her life. By all accounts she was an incredible person.”
Joel Faxon, an attorney at Stratton Faxon in New Haven who is representing Short, said he was compelled to sue the Yale chapter and 86 of its members after the insurer for the national organization disclaimed responsibility for the local fraternity.
The insurance company took the position that “the national and the local have nothing to do with one another,” Faxon said. “It’s not true, but that’s the position they take. That leaves us with having to sue all these kids.”
SigEp’s Yale chapter is a voluntary association, the attorney said, requiring him to sue all of its members.
Faxon said that Short’s injuries required surgery and that she incurred more than $300,000 in economic damages. While calling his client’s suit “a seven-figure case,” he declined say how much money he thought she was due.
“A jury would make that determination,” Faxon said.
Brian W. Smith of Berchem Moses & Devlin PC in Milford, Connecticut, a lawyer for the fraternity’s Yale chapter, didn’t immediately respond to a voice-mail message seeking comment on the suits.
Jeremy David Platek, an attorney in White Plains, New York, representing the majority of the defendants in the two suits, also didn’t immediately respond to a voice-mail message. A message left with SigEp’s national headquarters in Richmond wasn’t immediately returned. Yale spokesman Tom Conroy declined to comment.
There have been at least 60 fraternity-related deaths since 2005 stemming from hazing, drinking, drugs, fires or other such incidents, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Barry’s death, which isn’t included in that total, stands apart because it was the result of a traffic accident.
The cases are St. Pierre v. SigEp Connecticut Delta, NNH- CV14-6043934-S; and Short v. SigEp Connecticut Delta, NNH- CV14-6043935-S, Connecticut Superior Court (New Haven).
Editors: Andrew Dunn, Peter Blumberg