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Missouri-Columbia Fraternity Named in Hazing Lawsuit

Missouri-Columbia Fraternity Named in Hazing Lawsuit

The University of Missouri-Columbia chapter of the Kappa Alpha Order has been named in a lawsuit alleging hazing and forced consumption on near-lethal amounts of alcohol.

In that lawsuit, Brandon Zingale states that as an 18-year-old freshman he and other pledges of the Kappa Alpha Order’s local chapter were “coerced” into participating in a vodka-chugging contest as a part of their effort to join the fraternity, even though the university had put the fraternity on probation two weeks earlier for violations of the university’s alcoholic beverages policies.

After the contest, Zingale says that he was placed in a bedroom where he was not discovered until some 10 hours later “… drenched in urine, unconscious, barely breathing and unable to be awakened …” After being transported to a local hospital his blood alcohol level was determined to be 0.41, which is described as being in the range of “potentially lethal” by toxicologists and five times the level required to convict a Missouri driver on a driving under the influence charge.

The lawsuit further alleges that, after the incident was brought to the attention of local and campus law enforcement, the fraternity ordered its members to deliberately hinder efforts by the university, local police, and Zingale’s family to discover what had transpired at the fraternity house prior to the arrival of EMS personnel.

According to Ken Chackes, the St. Louis attorney representing Zingale, his client felt compelled to withdraw from the university and has since enlisted in an unnamed branch of the military.

Discussion

So, you might ask, does Brandon Zingale have a valid case? Based on the publicly-available information cited by the Associated Press in its news reports regarding the incident, the University of Missouri’s Alpha Kappa chapter and the national Kappa Alpha organization have found themselves as defendants in a lawsuit where their actions will be very hard to defend.

First of all, Missouri state law defines “hazing” to be

“… a willful act, occurring on or off the campus … of an educational institution, directed against a student or a prospective member of an organization operating under the sanction of an educational institution, that recklessly endangers the mental or physical health or safety of a student or prospective member for the purpose of initiation or admission into … any such organization to the extent that such person is knowingly placed at probable risk of the loss of life or probable bodily or psychological harm.” [Emphasis added]

This same law also removes “consent” as a possible defense if a criminal charge is brought against an individual or a group. Thus, even if Zingale had begged to participate in the chugging contest, his willingness could not be cited as a defense in either a criminal or a civil court.

Next come the matter of the fraternity serving alcohol to someone known to be a minor after it had been placed on probation for exactly the same offense. Since the fraternity’s officers and members knew that the fraternity was on probation, and then deliberately violated university policy, a jury could easily conclude that the fraternity’s actions demonstrated a deliberate disregard for Zingale’s health and safety. This allegation is supported by the actions of the fraternity members after the vodka-chugging contest had ended.

Placing a severely-intoxicated teenager in a bedroom and then failing to make sure that his condition was monitored strongly suggests that the fraternity members were either unaware that Zingale’s condition had reached the point that his life was in jeopardy or that they simply did not care. Although either could be interpreted as evidence of deliberate, or even criminal, negligence, it would seem that the fraternity members who agreed to mislead and/or hinder the university’s and the local police investigation could be guilty of two far more serious crimes: obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice.

Turning to the university’s role in this affair we must be ask why, given that the fraternity was already on probation, did the university not have a faculty member or some other official “on site” to monitor the fraternity’s conduct? This could be explained as a mere oversight. However, under the Law of Tort, oversights and poor judgement are considered to be negligence.

It would be some comfort if the Missouri case could be explained as an isolated case of bad judgement on the part of the local Kappa Alpha house. Unfortunately, this is not the case. A review of Internet news sources reveals that Kappa Alpha chapters have been suspended from three campuses in the first six months of 2017, three more were suspended in 2016, and three suspensions were handed down in 2015. Since all nine suspensions over the last three years were directly related to hazing and alcohol policy violations, it appears that the national Kappa Alpha organization has been less than diligent in supervising its chapters.

In closing, it is to Missouri-Columbia’s credit that it later suspended the local Kappa Alpha chapter for four years. Given that the fraternity members almost killed a prospective member, and then instructed its members to lie about what happened, why wasn’t the local fraternity ordered to permanently disband and those fraternity members involved in the incident not expelled from the university?

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