For 85 former Yale students and brothers of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, simply being present at the 2011 Harvard-Yale tailgate crash that left one woman dead and two injured may be enough to be held responsible for the accident, a Waterbury superior court judge ruled Wednesday.
Eighty-five students who were members of Yale’s chapter of Sig Ep at the time of the crash, plus the driver of the vehicle, Brendan Ross ’13, who was also a brother, will face a jury trial in December, judge Kari Anne Dooley wrote, denying their March 2015 motion for summary judgment.
The students were all named in a lawsuit filed by Sarah Short SOM ’13, one of the injured women, because they were members of Yale’s chapter of Sig Ep at the time of the crash, which resulted when Ross lost control of a U-Haul truck while on his way to a fraternity-sanctioned tailgate and collided with a group of pedestrians. Short sued all the active members of Yale’s chapter of Sig Ep at the time because the national Sig Ep fraternity resisted claims of liability, according to an interview early last year with Joel Faxon of the Faxon Law Group, the firm representing Short. Dooley ruled last month that the national fraternity must also proceed to jury trial to determine their responsibility.
Keidel, Weldon & Cunningham LLP, the firm representing the individual members, filed a motion for summary judgment in March, which would have allowed them to bypass a jury trial and have a decision rendered by judge. But Dooley rejected that motion on Wednesday, writing that the defendants — in this case the 84 individual members — had not met the “very heavy burden” of proving a lack of material fact in the case.
“Although the … individual member defendants argue that the plaintiffs rely solely upon ‘mere membership’ [as a basis for liability, thus] rendering summary judgment as to them appropriate, such is clearly not the case,” she wrote.
In the same decision, Dooley denied a separate motion for summary judgment by Patrick Dolan ’13, who was president of Sig Ep at the time and also named as one of the 85 defendants.
Dooley said the plaintiffs had convincingly demonstrated a number of relationships between Ross and the other fraternity members that would allow the matter to go to court. Namely, she wrote, the fact that some members were on the fraternity’s executive board — which planned the tailgate — as well as the presence of some members in the U-Haul truck, and even the fact that members had participated in the tailgate itself, established enough material fact for the matter to go before a jury.
In the original motion for summary judgment, Jeremy Platek, an attorney with Keidel, Weldon & Cunningham, wrote that Short’s lawsuit against the individual students was unfounded, as membership alone in an organization did not render them responsible for another brother’s actions.
“In this matter, plaintiff intends on expanding liability exponentially to innocent bystanders,” Platek wrote.
Christopher Weldon, a partner with Keidel, Weldon & Cunningham, said his firm does not comment on pending legislation. Eric Smith, an attorney with Faxon Law Group, could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening.