The family of an 18 year-old student who died at Wabash College in Indiana is suing the college. The suit was filed just less than two years from the anniversary of the death of Johnny Smith of Arizona. Smith died the weekend of homecoming, October 5, 2008 at the Delta Tau Delta fraternity house.
At the time of his death, his blood alcohol level was .40, five times the legal limit to drive. The fraternity was kicked off campus following Smith's death. However, Smith's parents believe that besides banishing the fraternity, little else changed on campus. No criminal charges were ever filed by Montgomery County prosecutor Joe Buser in Smith's case.
According to Steve Wagner, attorney for the family, members of the Delta Tau Delta purchased alcohol and encouraged Smith to drink heavily. Wagner argues that the college had a duty to supervise what was going on at the fraternity because it owns the property. According to Wagner, the fraternity and the college were negligent.
"When you foster an out of control atmosphere, provide an abundance of alcohol, put them through a hell week, and then say let loose freshman you're asking for trouble," said Wagner, referring to college and fraternity traditions, Fox 59 reports, "...Wabash is basically using these houses as a dorm ... As a landlord and premises owner you can't allow criminal activity to go on..."
Wabash administrators were contacted by reporters but have not commented on the lawsuit.
Wagner says that Smith's death was not an isolated incident and that the school has a particular problem with alcohol. Fox 59 listed other alcohol related incidents on campus including a Lambda Chi Alpha member who fell off a roof and died in 2007 and a case in 2003 when a fraternity student nearly died after being forced to "consume a potentially lethal amount of alcohol."
Whether the court will find Wabash College liable for the death of Smith under the landlord/premises owner theory is another question. Landlords do have a duty to ensure that illegal activity is not being conducted on their property, but the threshold for such a duty is fairly low.