Fraternity Facing Lawsuit for Alcohol Hazing Death

Posted March 25, 2013 in Personal Injury by

A young man unconscious, surrounded by beer mugs


The family of a Fresno State student who died of alcohol poisoning during a Theta Chi pledge initiation last year has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the fraternity.

Phillip Dhanen, 18, passed away in August after his blood alcohol content peaked at over five times the legal limit while drinking at a party. The lawsuit names the local Theta Chi chapter and the national organization, as well as six individual members.

“Every parent’s worst nightmare is to receive a call letting them know that their child died,” the family said in a statement. “No family should have to suffer this kind of loss, and we will work to stop hazing deaths.”

The fraternity’s national headquarters responded to the lawsuit in a statement, saying that the Fresno chapter had been suspended for violating policy. “Theta Chi Fraternity has strict guidelines prohibiting underage alcohol consumption and a strict anti-hazing policy,” the statement says. “The International Fraternity expects its chapters and members to uphold these policies and to follow all applicable laws.”


Hot Sauce and Bottle Rockets

There have been numerous lawsuits against fraternities for hazing and other reckless behavior in recent years. Among them:

  • Last week a student at the University of Kansas filed a lawsuit against Sigma Phi Epsilon after he was smashed into a concrete wall and suffered brain damage at an underage drinking party.
  • A Virginia State University student is suing Phi Beta Sigma for $1.7 million for a series of humiliations including being forced to eat unknown materials until he vomited, and having hot sauce poured on his genitals.
  • Two former members settled a lawsuit against Sigma Chi in 2011 in which they alleged that they were “verbally assaulted, paddled, forced to drink alcoholic concoctions and perform humiliating acts” while attending the University of Nebraska.
  • A student filed a suit against Alpha Tau Omega at Marshall University in West Virginia when he fell off a deck after being startled by a member who attempted to launch a bottle rocket out of his anus. “Instead of launching, the bottle rocket blew up in the defendant’s rectum, and this startled the plaintiff and caused him to jump back,” the lawsuit claimed.

Theta Chi itself has faced other lawsuits. When Harrison Kowiak was killed after being tackled during a capture-the-flag initiation game at Lenoir-Rhyne University in North Carolina in 2008, his family sued the fraternity and settled out of court last year. And in 2001, when Seth Korona died after a fall at a Theta Chi party at Indiana University, his parents filed a suit which settled in 2003.


Who is Responsible?

Douglas E. Fierberg

Fourty-four states have anti-hazing laws, according to, each defining hazing in its statute. “Generally speaking, it’s conduct that threatens to cause physical or severe psychological injury to a person in connection with their efforts to join the organization,” says Douglas E. Fierberg, an attorney with D.C.-area firm Bode Grenier. Fierberg is the attorney for the plaintiffs in the Theta Chi suit and has represented numerous hazing victims nationwide. “Under that large heading obviously there are all sorts of things that constitute hazing,” he says.

In California the anti-hazing statute is known as “Matt’s Law” in memory of Matthew William Carrington, a Chico State student who died of water intoxication during a Chi Tau hazing incident in 2005. The law provides criminal penalties as well as an avenue for civil remedies against individuals and organizations involved in hazing.

In fraternity cases, often the members, the local chapter and the parent organization can be held responsible. The school can be as well, depending on the circumstance. “Most fraternities require that their initiation activities remain secret and they seek to hide those activities from the university,” Fierberg says. “So first and foremost, the organization most likely to be able to discover it and stop it, that being the fraternity entity, is responsible for controlling it.”

The law isn’t intended to stop fraternities and other organizations from rite and ritual, only to curb dangerous and humiliating practices. “It’s not intended to capture most types of initiation activities,” the attorney says. “But locking pledges in a room and ordering them to drink until they finish consuming dangerous and fatal quantities of alcohol? That’s hazing.”

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