A jury on Friday concluded that two former members of a University of Delaware fraternity were not liable for the alcohol-poisoning death of an 18-year-old pledge in 2008 during a ritual.
Ruling in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the parents of Brett Griffin of Kendall Park, N.J., jurors said former chapter president of the Delta Lambda chapter of Sigma Alpha Mu, Jason Aaron, and former pledge master, Matthew Siracusa, were not responsible.
The fraternity and other members previously reached settlements in the case, but attorneys for Aaron, 25, and Siracusa, 26, argued that they were not liable because they did not participate in any hazing of Griffin, and that no one had forced him to drink.
Griffin died with a blood-alcohol level of .341, more than four times the threshold for drunken driving, hours after a fraternity ritual in which he and other pledges were introduced to their “big brothers” and their “family drink.” For Griffin, that was a bottle of Southern Comfort.
Aaron wept after the jury declared that he did not haze Griffin or put him in a position of peril on the night he died.
The jury found that Siracusa, either alone or with others, had hazed Griffin, but that the hazing was not the proximate cause of Griffin's death or any pain or suffering he experienced.
Griffin's parents, Tim and Julie Griffin, left the courtroom grim-faced after the verdict.
“This is the reason why kids are still dying from hazing in the year 2013,” Julie Griffin said. “Everybody wants to blame the kids.”
Aaron's attorney, David Malatesta, said he was pleased that the jury saw through the plaintiffs' arguments.
“This was an unfortunate accident, like we said from the beginning, and no one's fault” Malatesta said.
While relieved at the verdict, Siracusa acknowledged that drinking among college students is a problem.
“The amount of excess there is, it's out of control,” he said.
Siracusa said he regrets Griffin's death and hopes his parents can find closure, but that he doesn't know what he could have done differently.
“Yeah, we did some dumb stuff during pledging, but nothing ever to hurt anybody,” Siracusa said. “.... Never ever did we make anybody drink... No one was ever in pain or hurting.”
Doug Fierberg, an attorney for the Griffins, declined to comment.
Fierberg argued during the trial that Brett Griffin's death was the result of illegal hazing that included lining up pledges in the basement of the fraternity house and forcing them to eat and drink substances that made them vomit. It concluded with a booze-soaked party that the fraternity was prohibited from having because of a previous alcohol violation.
In his closing argument Thursday, Fierberg reminded jurors that shortly before Griffin died, he told a friend in a text message that he was going “mentally insane” because of pledging.
Both Aaron and Siracusa testified that fraternity members knew when planning the party to celebrate the introduction of Griffin and other pledges to their big brothers that the fraternity was banned from having social events because of a previous violation of university rules regarding alcohol during fraternity rush. But Aaron and Siracusa said they did not participate in any alleged hazing of Griffin.
Jurors were told that Griffin consumed what amounted to at least an entire bottle of Southern Comfort before passing out in an upstairs room alongside other pledges who also were in drunken stupors.
Siracusa testified that he wasn't at the party and instead spent the night with friends at a nearby bar.
Aaron attended the party but said he never saw Griffin in any distress, even though the chapter vice president had texted Griffin's big brother, Michael Bassett, just before midnight saying Griffin and other pledges were “all dead right now.”
Fierberg told jurors that fraternity members waited nine minutes to call 911 after another brother texted Bassett that Griffin, who had been propped on his side on a couch with a bucket or trash can in which to vomit, was “foaming out of his mouth.”