This article has been updated to reflect the version that ran in print on Jan. 19.
The national Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, its local Yale chapter and more than 80 of its former members have settled lawsuits over a fatal collision at the 2011 Harvard-Yale tailgate that left one dead and two others injured, more than three years after the first suit was filed.
Brendan Ross ’13, a member of the fraternity, was driving a U-Haul truck toward the tailgate in November 2011 when he lost control of the vehicle, striking and killing 30-year-old Nancy Barry of Salem, Massachusetts. Sarah Short SOM ’13 and Harvard employee Elizabeth Dernbach were also injured in the accident. Short’s and Barry’s estates filed suits against the national Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, Yale University, U-Haul, Ross as well as other defendants in April 2012. In December of the following year, both parties also filed identical but separate suits that individually named all the students who were members of the fraternity’s Yale chapter at the time of the crash, whether or not they were present at the tailgate. The suits were later consolidated into one case, and a settlement was reached this past November, lawyers involved in the lawsuits revealed earlier this month.
“After a lot of investigation, we were eventually able to settle the claims with the respective defendants separately,” Paul Edwards, an attorney representing Barry’s family, told the News. “The terms of the settlement are confidential. Based on our investigation and our view of the evidence, I am not surprised the case was resolved.” He added that there was no admission of liability from any of the defendants.
The settlement was reached roughly two months after the defendants were denied summary judgment by Judge Kari Dooley of the Waterbury Superior Court. The defendants had filed for summary judgment — which would have allowed a judge to render a decision — in the hopes that the case would not go before a jury.
Although the formal court documents have yet to be filed, the settlement marks the closing of the long-running litigation process, as the national fraternity, its Yale chapter and the individual fraternity members were the final defendants to settle with the plaintiffs out of court. The lawsuit against the University itself was withdrawn in April of last year, while the suit against U-Haul was withdrawn the year before that. Edwards said Barry’s mother has “some relief” about the closure of the litigation process, but added that no amount of money would make up for her grief.
The case had been scheduled to go to trial on Jan. 15 in Waterbury Superior Court. Despite accepting the undisclosed settlement offer, Edwards said he would have been comfortable going to trial.
“I thought we had a strong case factually and legally, and I think the defendants realized that,” he said.
The case itself was unusual as it saw the plaintiffs directly sue more than 80 members of the local fraternity, a tactic Edwards said does not have much current legal precedent in Connecticut. The plaintiffs had originally sued the national fraternity in 2012, but liability issues led them to file new suits against the local chapter and its individual members in 2013, especially after the national chapter denied any responsibility for its local chapter’s actions.
The national fraternity’s chief executive officer, Brian Warren Jr., and its attorney, Harold Friedman from the Westport law firm Verrill Dana LLP, declined to comment on the proceedings. Attorneys from Berchem Moses & Devlin, P.C., which represented the local chapter, and Keidel Weldon & Cunningham LLP, which represented individual members, did not return requests for comment.
Dean of Student Engagement Burgwell Howard told the News that legally, the local SigEp chapter at Yale does not have a formal relationship with the University.
“So, any issues that individuals may have would be theirs alone, or in concert with the local chapter, its alumni corporation or the national organization,” Howard said.
Nevertheless, Howard said Greek organizations are granted recognition at most other universities across the country, which would give them the same privileges and responsibilities as other student organizations. One of his tasks in the upcoming month is to clarify and strengthen Yale’s relationship with the various fraternities and sororities on campus, Howard added.