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Wrongful Death Claims and Hazing Accidents

Casey Woodruff

undefinedIf you live in the Chicago area, you might have heard about a recent news story and subsequent lawsuit concerning the death of a 19-year-old fraternity pledge at Northern Illinois University (NIU). According to a recent article in The Chicago Tribune, the family of the student filed a wrongful death claim after their son died after heavy drinking at a Pi Kappa Alpha pledge event. While a Cook County trial judge initially dismissed the lawsuit, the family appealed. The First District Appellate Court partially reversed the Cook County trial court’s ruling, allowing the wrongful death claim to be reinstated.

The outcome of this wrongful death lawsuit could set an important precedent in Illinois when it comes to hazing activities at fraternities.

Details of the Northern Illinois University Hazing Incident

What happened during the pledge event, and on what grounds did the family file a wrongful death lawsuit? According to the Chicago Tribune article, the victim, David Bogenberger, died at the NIU Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity house, located in DeKalb, after being required to go “from room to room answering questions posed by members and their guests and…given shots of alcohol.” The party violated NIU campus rules, and the fraternity did not inform any campus officials that the party was taking place.

After drinking numerous shots of alcohol, Bogenberger suffered from “a cardiac issue caused by alcohol consumption,” the article reported. Following an autopsy, the medical examiner determined that the fraternity pledge has a blood-alcohol content of about five times the legal limit for driving in Illinois.

Family Files Wrongful Death Lawsuit

Following the death of Bogenberger, the victim’s family filed a wrongful death claim against a number of parties, including:

  • Members of the fraternity at the time of the death;
  • National fraternity organization of Pi Kappa Alpha;
  • Landlord of the fraternity house; and
  • Nonfraternity members who were present at the party.

The trial court dismissed the case against all of the named parties. When the case reached the appellate court, the court determined that the national fraternity organization, the landlord, and the nonfraternity members could not be held liable for Bogenberger’s death. However, the appellate court ruled that the family could in fact sue the fraternity members. The fraternity members previously were charged with violations of the Illinois Hazing Act (720 ILCS 120/).

Illinois’s Wrongful Death Act and the Illinois Hazing Act

Under the Illinois Wrongful Death Act, when the death of a person results from the “wrongful act, neglect or default” of another party, the family members of the deceased may be eligible to file a wrongful death claim. If we take a closer look at the Illinois Hazing Act, we can see that an act of hazing occurs when a person:

  1. “knowingly requires the performance of any act by a student or other person in a school . . . for the purpose of induction or admission into any group, organization, or society associated or connected with it”; and
  2. the act or event is not sanctioned by the educational institution; and
  3. it results in bodily harm to a person.

Hazing is a Class A misdemeanor unless “death or great bodily harm” results from it, in which case it becomes a Class 4 felony. The Illinois Wrongful Death Act makes clear that a civil claim for financial compensation is allowed even when the liable party’s actions also involve criminal law charges.

Contact a Chicago Wrongful Death Attorney

The current decision from the appellate court demonstrates that hazing is a serious crime in Illinois and that families should be able to seek compensation through a wrongful death claim when a loved one dies in a hazing incident. If you have questions about filing a wrongful death lawsuit, you should discuss your options with an experienced wrongful death attorney in Chicago as soon as possible. Contact Woodruff Johnson & Evans today.

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