Two new lawsuits seek to hold over eighty members of a Yale University fraternity vicariously liable for an automobile accident that killed one person and injured two. A fraternity member allegedly lost control of a U-Haul truck and struck several pedestrians outside a football game. The estate of the woman who died in the accident and one of the women who was injured had previously sued the national fraternity and the university. The national fraternity disclaimed responsibility, but the new lawsuits suggest that it left the local fraternity chapter and its members exposed to vicarious liability claims. Personal injury claims against organizations lacking formal legal structure, based on actions of their members, can present difficult questions of how to determine and apportion fault.
The accident occurred on November 19, 2011 at a tailgate party hosted by the Yale chapter of Sigma Phi Epsilon (SigEp) at the annual football game against Harvard. A fraternity member was transporting beer kegs in a U-Haul truck to the tailgate, when he lost control of the vehicle. One person, thirty year-old Nancy Barry, was killed, while Yale student Sarah Short and another woman were injured. The school reportedly responded by putting new restrictions on tailgate parties and banning kegs at athletic events.
Short and Barry’s estate each filed suit in 2012 against the national SigEp organization, Yale University, U-Haul, the driver of the truck, and others. Each lawsuit claimed several million dollars in damages. They alleged that the national fraternity was liable because the members who were involved in the accident were acting as its representatives. The lawsuits reportedly foundered, however, when the Richmond, Virginia-based national SigEp organization stated that it had not officially sanctioned the tailgate party, and its insurer disclaimed all responsibility for the Yale chapter.
The plaintiffs filed new lawsuits in New Haven Superior Court on December 30, 2013, naming the Yale SigEp chapter, officially known as SigEp Connecticut Delta, and eighty-six individual fraternity members as defendants. The driver of the U-Haul truck is not named in either lawsuit. Both lawsuits allege that the local fraternity chapter and the individual defendants are vicariously liable for the accident, meaning that while they were not directly involved in the accident, they are part of the same organization as the individual responsible.
According to Bloomberg News, national fraternity organizations frequently try to deflect liability onto local chapters, even encouraging plaintiffs to sue individual members. The lawsuits describe the local chapter as an “unincorporated voluntary association of Yale University undergraduate student members.” It therefore offers little to no protection to its members from liability for acts done on behalf of the organization.
Our legal system recognizes certain types of organizations as distinct and separate entities. Some organizations, such as corporations, protect their owners and other participants from liability for the actions of the organization itself and of other participants. Without that form of legal recognition, however, courts may allow a plaintiff to claim liability against other members of a group for the acts of one member, if the member was acting on behalf of the group.
The automobile accident attorneys at Lebowitz & Mzhen help people in the Washington, DC area recover their just compensation when they have suffered injuries caused by the negligent or unlawful conduct of others. Contact us today online or at (800) 654-1949 to schedule a free and confidential consultation.
Complaint (PDF file), No. NHH-CV14-6043934-S, Estate of Barry v. SigEp Connecticut Delta, et al, Superior Court of Connecticut, J.D. of New Haven, December 30, 2013
Complaint (PDF file), No. NNH-CV14-6043935-S, Short v. SigEp Connecticut Delta, et al, Superior Court of Connecticut, J.D. of New Haven, December 30, 2013
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