Lawsuit faults LSU in alleged fraternity hazing incident

18-year-old student died during drinking ritual

By DAKIN ANDONE, CNN
Copyright 2018 CNN

18-year-old LSU freshman Maxwell Gruver died after being forced to drink large amounts of alcohol in a hazing ritual.

(CNN) - Last fall, a fraternity pledge's parent emailed Louisiana State University's Office of Greek Life and said they'd heard members of another pledge class had been forced to drink alcohol until each member had vomited, according to a federal lawsuit filed against the school.

"As a parent of a pledge of another fraternity, I am very angry that this has occurred and I know that it will likely continue," the parent wrote. "I do not want to hear that someone's son is dead due to alcohol poisoning, and I expect someone to investigate this incident ASAP and put an end to hazing at LSU."

Ten days later, 18-year-old LSU freshman Maxwell Gruver was dead as a result of being forced to drink copious amounts of alcohol in a hazing ritual.

This account is from a lawsuit filed by Gruver's parents against LSU, the Phi Delta Theta fraternity -- which Gruver was pledging -- and a number of its members, alleging they failed to adequately address hazing on campus, despite numerous hazing claims.

The lawsuit, which seeks $25 million, says the school violated Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, because it handled hazing claims in fraternities and sororities differently.

The tradition of fraternity hazing was allowed to continue because of "outdated gender stereotypes about young men engaging in masculine rites of passage," said a statement from the Cazayoux Ewing Law Firm, which represents the family.

As a result, young men faced "serious and substantial risks of injury and death," while young women did not.

The Gruvers' lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in the Middle District of Louisiana on Thursday, also alleges LSU was well aware of the risks posed by hazing that prospective fraternity members faced when they chose to join fraternities, and was not transparent about those risks.

In a statement, LSU extended its condolences to Gruver's family and said it would continue to work on protecting its students and educating them about hazing. It also pointed out that it has "worked to support the Gruvers' efforts to bring attention to and combat hazing," including through legislation.

"The Gruver lawsuit contains a number of allegations, all of which will be addressed in the course of the legal process," the statement continued. "LSU unequivocally denies the claim that it has been 'deliberately indifferent' or that it 'has discriminated against male students in violation of Title IX.' LSU has acted repeatedly against campus fraternities and sororities alike."

At the end of the day, LSU said, enforcement of the school's rules "depends on individuals' adherence to those safety policies. That is where the ultimate responsibility lies."

The Phi Delta Theta national organization called Gruver's death a "very tragic situation that should have never happened," in a statement posted to its website, and pointed out the LSU chapter's charter was revoked four days after the incident and that it supports "meaningful reform."

"Immediately after the situation, Phi Delta Theta initiated a thorough review of all the fraternity's health and safety initiatives," the statement said. "While these efforts continue, they have already resulted in the creation of required individual and chapter bystander education, a Good Samaritan policy, mandatory new member program development, and enhanced parent engagement and communication."

Gruver allegedly forced to drink

Authorities have said Gruver died as a result of a hazing ritual known as "Bible Study," in which fraternity members asked pledges questions about the fraternity. If pledges answered incorrectly, they were forced to drink alcohol.

Gruver, of Roswell, Georgia, became highly intoxicated and incapacitated, and fraternity members laid him down on a couch in the frat house, according to witnesses.

He was periodically checked on throughout the night, but by 9 a.m. the next morning, his pulse was weak and those around him couldn't tell whether he was breathing.

Gruver was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

According to the lawsuit, Gruver's blood alcohol content was 0.495 when an autopsy was conducted a day and a half later.

The coroner's office ruled Gruver's death was accidental and caused by "acute alcohol intoxication with aspiration."

Gruver would have survived, the lawsuit says, if he had received timely medical care.

Four former LSU students face criminal charges in Gruver's death.

Lawsuit: LSU fraternities have history of hazing violations

The lawsuit accuses LSU of handling hazing cases in fraternities and sororities differently, treating allegations at sororities "aggressively," but addressing allegations of hazing at fraternities "with deliberate indifference," minimizing the hazing as "boys being boys."

As a result, LSU sororities had less of a history of hazing and misconduct than fraternities.

According to the lawsuit, out of 27 LSU fraternties, only four did not commit risk-management violations in the five years before Gruver set foot on campus.

As for the national fraternity, the lawsuit alleges that Phi Delta Theta has "a long history of dangerous misconduct at universities across the country," including at LSU.

"In the years preceding Max's death, LSU received so many credible complaints of hazing and dangerous compelled consumption of alcohol against Phi Delt's LSU chapter that, in 2016, the Director of LSU's Office of Greek Life "begged for assistance" from Phi Delt's national headquarters in addressing the misconduct," the lawsuit says.

But the fraternity's national office did not adequately address the alleged misconduct at the chapter, according to the lawsuit, and LSU continued to allow the chapter to recruit new members until Gruver's death.

"Every year, and for decades, young men have died or suffered traumatic injuries pledging fraternities that are dangerous, yet promoted with false and misleading information by the partnerships between fraternities and universities," said Doug Fierberg, the Gruver family's lead counsel.

"A central purpose of this lawsuit is to compel LSU, Phi Delta Theta and other universities to eliminate dangerous hazing traditions, end the killing of young men, and stop lying to students and families who have the right to know information that may save lives."

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