The parents of a John Carroll University student who died last year after suffering fatal injuries at a Phi Kappa Sigma New Year’s party have filed a wrongful death lawsuit.
The suit claims that the University, Phi Kappa Sigma International Fraternity and the independent housing corporation of Penn’s former Alpha chapter of PKS — commonly called “Skulls” — were at fault in the January 2011 death of Matthew Crozier.
Though the lawsuit was filed in May 2011, details of its contents did not emerge until recently, following the decision of the PKS International Fraternity — Skulls’ national headquarters — to suspend the Alpha chapter’s charter.
Crozier’s parents are accusing both Penn and the fraternity of negligence for knowingly allowing underage drinking at an on-campus party, as well as not taking the necessary precautions to ensure that the Skulls chapter house at 3539 Locust Walk was up to building code standards.
The family is seeking “in excess of $50,000” from each of the parties named in the suit, though Robert Mongeluzzi, who is representing the Croziers, believes that a settlement or jury would likely award far more in damages.
“I’d say there’s no doubt this case is worth in the millions,” he said, explaining that state judicial practices prohibit plaintiffs from specifying an exact amount to request in damages for civil cases like this. “The only question is how many millions it’s worth.”
New Year’s Eve
According to the lawsuit, Crozier and two friends, Connor and John Kane, left for the Skulls chapter house at approximately 8 p.m. on Dec. 31, 2010. They had planned to stay at Skulls overnight.
Crozier became friendly with the Kanes when they were younger and played in a basketball league together.
On their way to Penn’s campus, the group stopped at Suds Beer Store — located in Feasterville-Trevose, Pa. — to purchase multiple six-packs of beer. Despite the fact that Crozier was 20 at the time, Suds employees sold him the beer without checking for identification, the suit claims.
The Croziers are also suing Suds for more than $50,000 for its alleged role in their son’s death. In multiple response briefs filed over the past 15 months, Suds has denied all liability for the incident.
At approximately 3 a.m., according to the lawsuit, Crozier — who had been drinking throughout the night — was approaching the second flight of stairs in the Skulls house when he “tripped and fell over a deficient railing to the ground below and landed on his head.”
He sustained extensive brain injuries from the fall, and died a few days later on Jan. 5, 2011.
The incident prompted Skulls’ immediate suspension by both its national headquarters and Penn’s Office of Student Affairs/Fraternity Sorority Life.
While the fraternity was not permitted to participate in spring 2011 rush, OFSA lifted the suspension in March 2011. However, on Sunday, PKS Grand Alpha Douglas Opicka posted a video message on the fraternity’s Facebook page informing the brothers of their charter’s removal.
“I must regrettably inform you that, as of 3 p.m. today, Sept. 16, 2012, the charter for the Alpha chapter has been suspended and the chapter itself has been closed,” Opicka said in the video. “Last week, it finally reached a point that the fraternity’s executive committee felt we could no longer allow Alpha chapter to operate due to the risk that they posed to the entire fraternity.… I personally believe that we exhausted all avenues available to try to save and rehabilitate the Alpha chapter.”
Central to the family’s lawsuit is the claim that the railing in the Skulls house over which Crozier allegedly fell was “in a defective and dangerous condition as [it was] extremely low and insufficient to prevent Matthew from falling.”
Penn and the fraternity’s national office declined to comment on the lawsuit, but both have made clear through court documents that they are vigorously denying the Croziers’ claims about their failure to maintain the safety and upkeep of the house.
William Pastorick and Michael Fox — attorneys with the firm Nelson, Levine, de Luca & Horst who are representing the PKS International Fraternity and the housing corporation for Alpha chapter — did not respond to multiple requests for comment Wednesday. It is unclear if Pastorick and Fox will continue to represent the chapter’s housing corporation now that Skulls’ charter has been suspended, though Ara Avrigian, an attorney who is working with Mongeluzzi on the suit, believes they will stay on as counsel.
Other than a brief, three-sentence email statement provided by OFSA Director Scott Reikofski — which said that Penn “supports Phi Kappa Sigma’s actions” — Vice President for University Communications Stephen MacCarthy said in an email that Penn does not comment on pending litigation.
For the University’s part, it wrote in a June 2011 response brief to the lawsuit that “although the University of Pennsylvania recommended to Phi Kappa Sigma House Corporation that certain handrails within their fraternity house should be modified so that they would meet new building code standards, the existing handrails were lawful in their then-existing configuration.”
In 2004, Penn worked with Blackney Hayes Architects to carry out a study to assess the current state and infrastructure of all of the University’s Greek houses. The decision to conduct the study came a few years after a 1999 incident in which Penn graduate Michael Tobin died after falling several stories at the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house.
In the report — which was included as an exhibit in the Croziers’ evidence to date — the surveyors wrote that the Skulls house needed to “install hand/guardrails where they do not comply, are not installed or are inadequate.” They also wrote that “hand and/or guardrails of proper height and configuration [are] needed at the stairs.”
Although the chapter house is located on Penn’s campus, it is owned and managed solely by a corporation of Skulls alumni.
While Penn said in multiple responses to the lawsuit that it informed the fraternity of the need to install more stable railings, the University is denying liability for claims related to the building’s faulty infrastructure — as well as all claims in general.
The fraternity’s national headquarters wrote in a response that “the PKS defendants specifically deny that the handrails on the staircase from which Matthew Crozier is alleged to have fallen were deficient.” It has also claimed that Penn never informed the chapter or the national headquarters that the fraternity needed to raise the guardrails before the incident.
Mongeluzzi called these assertions “outrageous.”
“It is clear beyond question that the railing over which Matt Crozier fell was woefully deficient, unsafe and hazardous,” he said. “It was noted more than five years before Matt’s death as a safety hazard, yet never made safe by their housing corporation. The adults in charge enabled this to a deadly effect.”
Mongeluzzi also noted that the presence of underage drinking at the Skulls party has been central to the case he is putting together.
Through about 30 depositions this summer — which included out-of-court testimony by Penn administrators, Skulls brothers who were at the New Year’s party and other fraternity leaders — Mongeluzzi said it became apparent to him that “there has been a long-standing history of illegal service of alcohol at parties at Phi Kappa Sigma going back a number of years.”
“We have maintained that the house corporation and national corporation knew about it and never put a stop to it,” he added.
Penn and the PKS national office have denied that they had any knowledge of alcohol being consumed by minors in the chapter house.
This summer, Mongeluzzi’s team — along with other attorneys representing the various defendants — walked through the Skulls house for an inspection. During the inspection, Mongeluzzi said the group found clear signs of alcohol — for example, beer pong tables downstairs, empty bottles of Jack Daniels resting on windowsills and red Solo cups strewn across the floor.
Skulls President and College senior Chuck Schmitt acknowledged that the summer walk-through “didn’t help” the fraternity, though he said the brothers were still shocked by Sunday’s decision to suspend the charter.
Although the chapter’s student leadership declined to comment on the lawsuit — most said they have not even seen a copy of it — Skulls Vice President and College junior Chase Lax said there has always been an air of inevitability surrounding the suspension.
“The fact that we were open 18 months [after Crozier’s death] is an amazing thing,” he said. “We’ve always been emotionally prepared for this.”
The brothers will continue to live in the chapter house for the remainder of the year, Schmitt added. Beyond that, the fraternity remains unsure of the next steps it will take.
A trial on the horizon?
Moving forward, all parties in the lawsuit are nearing completion of discovery — a pre-trial phase in a civil suit during which lawyers from opposing sides share evidence, conduct depositions and exchange other documents. According to Avrigian, discovery for the case must be completed by Oct. 1.
If the Croziers do not reach a settlement with all of the parties in the months following that deadline, a jury trial is expected to take place some time early in 2013.
While very few civil suits of this nature make their way through an entire trial, Mongeluzzi emphasized that it will be up to the family to decide the course of action.
If the case does go to trial, the defendants will have to deal with the additional possibility of having to pay more in punitive damages, which the Croziers are also requesting. Unlike regular compensatory damages in a civil suit, punitive damages refer to those that are meant to deter a defendant from engaging in behavior similar to what prompted the lawsuit.
Mongeluzzi said the requests for punitive damages in this case are meant to underscore an important point about the pervasiveness of underage drinking throughout the country.
“The issue of alcohol on campus is one that’s an issue at every fraternity in America,” he said. “It’s an issue that’s quite frankly one of the most important on America’s campuses, and it’s important that we make a clear point about it [in this case].”
“If things had been handled differently, Matt Crozier would still be alive today,” Avrigian added. “That’s the bottom line.”