A wrongful death lawsuit accusing the University and Phi Kappa Sigma of failing to properly maintain a fraternity house holds traces of a similar suit that was settled less than a decade ago.
The parents of former John Carroll University student Matthew Crozier — who died in January 2011 after sustaining fatal head injuries from a fall at the PKS, or “Skulls,” chapter house — are using the case of 1994 College graduate Michael Tobin in their claims against Penn, PKS International Fraternity and Skulls’ independent alumni housing corporation.
In 1999, Tobin fell to his death from an outdoor cement stairway behind the Phi Gamma Delta — also known as FIJI — chapter house. He was found dead at around 6 a.m. on March 21 by a FIJI brother.
Two years after the incident, Tobin’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the University, the national headquarters of FIJI and Trammell Crow — the management company Penn worked with at the time to maintain the infrastructure of Greek housing and other facilities. The suit claimed, among other things, that all three defendants had failed to keep the chapter house up to proper safety standards.
The Tobins alleged that the area behind the FIJI house at 3619 Locust Walk — called “The Pit” — offered insufficient lighting and had handrails and a staircase that were not up to state codes.
Patricia Pierce, who represented the Tobins, told The Daily Pennsylvanian at the time that Penn had made a “conscious economic decision” not to repair the house.
“We’ve got a university that charges $150,000 to go to its school,” she said. “Is it too much to ask that they provide decent housing for the students who are there?”
Penn argued that the primary reason for the death was the fact that Tobin had been drinking heavily throughout the night. At the time he fell, his blood alcohol level was 0.23, according to a toxicology report conducted during his autopsy.
The suit was ultimately settled in 2003 for an undisclosed amount. Pierce declined to comment on the details of the settlement, citing its confidential nature.
Although Penn never admitted fault for the incident, it did agree to create two funds in memory of Tobin for the future maintenance of Greek houses and other University residences.
“Michael Tobin was an adult, responsible for his own behavior, and the University feels that the settlement, which will provide University resources for the continuing renewal of undergraduate housing, is a fair outcome,” then-Penn President Judith Rodin told The Daily Pennsylvanian in 2003. “It’s a satisfactory outcome for us.”
Up to code?
Nine years after the Tobin suit was settled, the Crozier family is accusing the University and Skulls of similar negligence for not keeping the PKS chapter house up to building codes.
The Crozier suit claims that the railing in the Skulls house over which Matthew Crozier allegedly fell was “in a defective and dangerous condition as [it was] extremely low and insufficient to prevent Matthew from falling.”
Penn, the independent alumni housing corporation that owns the Skulls house and PKS International Fraternity have all declined to comment on the suit. Each, however, is staunchly denying all of the suit’s negligence claims.
One year after the Tobin settlement, the University contracted Blackney Hayes Architects to conduct a study assessing the current state and safety of Penn’s Greek houses. The study found that the Skulls chapter house — located at 3539 Locust Walk —needed to “install hand/guardrails where they do not comply, are not installed or are inadequate.” The surveyors also wrote that “hand and/or guardrails of proper height and configuration [are] needed at the stairs.”
Penn, which claims that it informed Skulls of the study’s findings, argued in a June 2011 response brief 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.”
PKS is denying that the University told them about the house’s questionable condition before Crozier’s death.
Ara Avrigian, an attorney representing the Croziers, said there are “certainly some similarities” between the Tobin and Crozier lawsuits — particularly regarding building safety.
“We don’t know a whole lot about the Tobin suit [because of the confidential settlement] … but you would expect the defendant to be further diligent in making sure something like this didn’t happen again,” he said. “It seems that Penn didn’t adequately address it.”
Avrigian added that his legal team is still seeking a copy of the full settlement agreement from the Tobin case, which Penn has so far been unwilling to provide. The discovery period for the lawsuit — which refers the pre-trial phase of a civil suit when attorneys working on the case exchange documents and conduct depositions — is scheduled to be completed by Oct. 1.
The Croziers are seeking “in excess of $50,000” in damages from each of the parties named on the suit. However, Robert Mongeluzzi, who is also representing the Croziers, believes the case could result in a payout of far more — likely in the millions — since plaintiffs in Pennsylvania are not allowed to request a more specific amount in damages for civil suits like this.
In the midst of the suit, Skulls learned from its national headquarters on Sept. 16 that its charter had been suspended, due to what PKS Grand Alpha Douglas Opicka called a “risk that they posed to the entire fraternity.”
Skulls brothers will be required to leave the chapter house by the end of the
Penn’s alcohol policy
The Crozier suit also holds several similarities to the Tobin case with regard to its claims about Penn’s alcohol policy.
The Croziers are alleging that, at the time of their son’s death, Penn “[failed] to have adequate alcohol policies which required administrative checks on social functions.” They also accuse the University of “openly advocating the policy of consumption of alcoholic beverages.”
Although Penn’s alcohol policy has been a point of contention across campus over the years, it drew its largest degree of ire from the University community following Tobin’s death in 1999.
Immediately after Tobin died, Rodin instituted a temporary ban on all undergraduate alcohol-related activities. Her decision prompted 1,000 students to protest the ban on College Green, claiming that the campus community had not been adequately consulted about the decision
Later that year, a student, faculty and staff task force called the Working Group on Alcohol Abuse submitted a series of 44 recommendations to Rodin for approval. The recommendations included the implementation of the University Alcohol and Drug Policy — which, despite several revisions over the years, is still in existence today.
The proposed policy called for a number of changes, including the implementation of a medical amnesty clause — which guarantees that underage students who are intoxicated and seek medical assistance will not be subject to University discipline for doing so — and plans to increase alcohol-free student programming.
Rodin approved the policy in August 1999. Although administrators lauded the policy’s effectiveness, The Daily Pennsylvanian reported throughout the early 2000s that the new regulations led to a major decline in on-campus, registered parties and an uptick in off-campus gatherings with dangerous binge drinking.
Today, Penn’s alcohol policy review committee — which consists of various student leaders and University administrators — is working on drafting a series of proposed revisions to that same policy.
Among other goals, the APRC is looking to make it easier and more enticing for Greek chapters and other student groups to register on-campus parties with the Vice Provost for University Life.
The committee began reviewing the policy in August 2011, three months after the Crozier lawsuit was filed.
While a copy of the proposed changes was initially scheduled to be made public at an Undergraduate Assembly meeting in November 2011, its release has been delayed at multiple points over the past year.
Although Undergraduate Assembly President and College junior Dan Bernick — who sits on the APRC — declined to comment on when the recommendations will be released, he is confident in the alcohol policy’s viability moving forward.
“Our hope is to increase students’ safety and well-being and improve the vibrancy of social life on campus,” he said. “Penn is cognizant of the reality of student social life and wants to increase opportunities for safe, fun activities on campus.”