The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the family of a victim of the 2003 car crash that killed four Yale students and injured five others may proceed in a lawsuit against the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity on the grounds of negligence.
The students, all of whom were members of DKE, were returning to campus from a New York City fraternity event when their SUV collided with a tractor-trailer at around 5 a.m. on Jan. 17, 2003. The family of one of the students killed, Nicholas Grass ’05, filed lawsuits against DKE and several other defendants in 2005. Though the Connecticut Superiore Court ruled in favor of the fraternity in September 2009, the Wednesday reversal will now send the case to a trial by jury.
“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,” said Steven Ecker ’84, a lawyer representing the Grass family. “The same is true for a third person or organization.”
The family states that the fraternity should have selected a more careful driver, alleging that DKE held responsibility for safely transporting students back to New Haven since it sponsored the New York event, Ecker said. The suit claims that the driver of the car, a Yale student who was also killed, had been sleep-deprived because of the fraternity’s ongoing “Hell Week,” which includes many mandatory initiation activities.
DKE National Executive Director Doug Lanpher said Wednesday afternoon that he had “not had a chance to react” because “this is all so sudden,” adding that the fraternity needs to consult its lawyers before commenting further.
Nick Daffin ’13, current president of Yale’s DKE chapter, said he could not address the lawsuit without first consulting with the DKE national office, but added that “our hearts and prayers go out to [the victims’] families and we still remember them every year.” DKE’s Yale chapter is currently serving the first year of a five-year ban from recruiting new members or holding events on campus, imposed after DKE pledges were caught shouting offensive chants on Old Campus in October 2010.
In addition to the lawsuit against the fraternity, Grass’s estate also sued the Connecticut Department of Transportation for poor road maintenance and two construction companies that allegedly knocked down a light pole while working on the stretch of highway, contributing to limited visibility. The family settled with the construction companies, and the cases against the state were dismissed.
The fraternity, however, refused to settle and moved for the case to be dismissed, sending the case to the Connecticut Superior Court and eventually the Connecticut Supreme Court.
Ecker said if the jury rules in favor of the family, he expects the fraternity’s insurance to cover any damages, depending on the amount specified by the verdict. Still, he said he could not predict the outcome of the trial because “jurors in Connecticut are not necessarily overly generous.”
Brian Lew, a California-based personal injury and products liability attorney for the law firm Allen Flatt Ballidis & Leslie, said each trial in such cases is dependent on the specific details of the case, so it is hard to gauge the outcome.
In a separate 2005 lawsuit, the families of all of the crash victims filed a product liability suit against the company that manufactures the tractor-trailer involved in the crash, claiming that the driver could have avoided the crash if more lights were put on the truck. Ecker, who is familiar with the case but does not represent the families, said the trial for that lawsuit will likely occur next month.
Brett Smith ’12 and Eric Wenzel ’04, two survivors of the crash, both declined to comment.