Family settles lawsuit over DKE crash

The family of one of four Yale students killed in a 2003 crash on the return trip from a fraternity event has settled a lawsuit against the Delta Kappa Epsilon 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 Sept. 5, bringing an end to 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 on Interstate 95 at around 5 a.m. on Jan. 17, 2003. The collision killed Grass, Sean Fenton ’04, Andrew Dwyer ’05 and Kyle Burnat ’05 and injured the other five passengers, all of whom were members of DKE.

“If you open your door up and say to a friend, hop in and let’s go to New York or wherever, you have to drive carefully, and if you don’t, you’re responsible for your friend’s safety: The same is true for a third person or organization,” Steven Ecker ’84, a lawyer representing the Grass family, told the News in September 2009, after the Connecticut Supreme Court sent the case to a trial by jury.

Neither Ecker nor a representative of the DKE national chapter could not be reached for comment late Tuesday evening.

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 jackknifed 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.”

Grass pitched for the Yale baseball team and was the first native of Holyoke, Mass., 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.

“He was humble and modest and the joy of my life,” Catina Grass, Grass’ mother, said in 2003. “Until he died, I knew he had many, many friends, but I never knew how many people he had touched in his life.”

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

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