LITTLE ROCK University of Arkansas at Fayetteville administrators knew the Phi Delta Theta fraternity was “out of control” but failed to take action to prevent the party atmosphere that ultimately lead to the hazing and neardeath of freshman Nicholas Brown last year, according to a claim filed Nov. 10 with the Arkansas State Claims Commission.
“We want to make sure nothing like this happens in the future,” Brown’s attorney Ryan Allen said. “We’re just lucky he’s alive.”
The claim asks the state to pay $750,000 to cover the university’s and its administrators’ negligence in preventing the hazing of Brown and asks for a jury trial. Brown’s attorneys filed a lawsuit last month in Pulaski County Circuit Court in Little Rock,making similar claims against the international and local fraternity, individual university employees and former fraternity members.
Universities cannot be sued under Arkansas law, but claims of injury or damage are heard through the claims commission.
The claim and the lawsuit say that university officials ignored warnings that fraternity members were serving liquor to underage students and forcing new pledges to consume large quantities of alcoholic beverages.
“The University of Arkansas was negligent by not following policies, procedures and regulations and continued violations of these policies, procedures and regulations without repercussions to those groups, organizations or persons violating them,” according to the claim.
University attorney Scott Varady said university officials followed proper protocol when dealing with the fraternity, including charging the fraternity eight times with violating university policy. Four of those charges were dismissed when the international fraternity dissolved the chapter in December, officials have said. Fraternity members had been reprimanded in the past, he said.
“The university did follow its procedures,” Varady said. “It did follow its policies.”
The claim says the university did not follow its own guidelines for stepping up punishments for fraternity members who were repeat offenders and by allowing extensions for alcohol education courses meted out as punishment. Allen said he had matched up specific incidents where disciplinary guidelines were not followed.
“The main problem is that the university never in the past charged anyone with hazing or underage drinking,” Allen said. “The whole reason the university is liable is because they never did anything in the past.”
The claim revolves around a “big brother, little brother” event on Nov. 12, 2009, when about 100 fraternity members forced about 47 pledges to drink alcoholic beverages to the point of throwing up, the claim says.
Fraternity members forced Brown to drink whiskey and beer, according to the claim.
Disoriented, Brown called his girlfriend, who picked him up at the fraternity house and took him to Humphreys Hall, where he lived, according to the lawsuit. Once at the residence hall, he collapsed, became unresponsive and was rushed to a hospital where he slipped into a coma.
The claim says Brown had a 0.68 percent blood-alcohol level, far above the 0.08 percent level Arkansas law recognizes as driving while intoxicated. Brown was in a coma for about two days, his attorneys have said.
One of Brown’s attorneys said previously that Brown still is being evaluated for possible brain damage. Allen said he did not want to discuss Brown’s medical condition, but the claim said Brown and his family suffered severe emotional distress and are attending psychological counseling.
Brown is currently a student at the university. No one was charged in the hazing.
Should the claims commission decide in Brown’s favor, it would recommend that the General Assembly pay Brown, according to the commission’s website. The money would cover medical expenses, attorney fees and other damages, according to the claim.
The commission is unlikely to take up the claim before the Pulaski County Circuit Court makes a decision on Brown’s pending litigation, an attorney in the case said.
Fayetteville prosecutor Casey Jones said in late October that he would not pursue criminal charges against any former members of the fraternity because little time remained before the one-year statute of limitations expired on the misdemeanor hazing charge.
University of Arkansas police and Brown’s attorneys differ on whether Brown was fully cooperative with investigators in the case.
The international Phi Delta Theta organization suspended the local chapter on Dec. 3 because chapter members violated the fraternity’s risk management policy, international fraternity Executive Vice President Bob Biggs said previously. However, new members moved into the old fraternity house in January under a process known as “recolonization.”
No former members were allowed to rejoin the fraternity, but former pledges who had not become members are involved, Biggs said.