The Connecticut Supreme Court has ruled that a fraternity can be sued for negligence in connection with a 2003 crash that killed four Yale University students, including two members of the school’s baseball team. The students were returning from a Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity event for pledges in New York City on Jan. 17, 2003, when their SUV at a high speed ran into a tractor-trailer that had crashed on Interstate 95 at about 5 a.m. It was alleged in a lawsuit filed by the family of one of the victims that fraternity leaders failed to provide safe transportation home from the event. They said the driver, who was a Yale student and fraternity member, was sleep-deprived during the fraternity’s so-called “Hell Week,” when its pledges are hazed.
The Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling in favor of the fraternity, ruling that the lawsuit can proceed. The crash killed the driver and three of four back seat passengers. Two of the victims were pitchers on the baseball team. Five other Yale students in the SUV were injured, including members of the football team.
The Supreme Court’s ruling came in a lawsuit filed in 2005 against the national office of Delta Kappa Epsilon, the fraternity’s Yale chapter, the state Department of Transportation and two construction companies that had worked on the highway. The lawsuit contends that the fraternity had a duty to provide safe transportation home and negligently chose a student as the driver, even though he had had little sleep that week and had been up for nearly 20 hours before the accident.
It was alleged in the lawsuit that the state DOT and two construction companies were liable for alleged safety hazards at the highway construction site where the tractor-trailer crashed. Claims against the state were dismissed because of government immunity from lawsuits, while the construction companies entered into settlements with families of the victims.
The trial judge found in favor of the fraternity in September 2009, saying national and local fraternity leaders didn’t owe the students a “duty of care” while transporting him back to New Haven from New York. That ruling was appealed to the Supreme Court. That court ruled that the fraternity had no duty to provide transportation, but once it decided to, “it assumed a duty to do so safely.” The Court said it was up to a jury to decide whether the fraternity was negligent in having the student drive the students home.
The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the accident and found plenty of blame, including poor highway conditions, speeding, fatigue and lack of seat belt use. The agency concluded that the tractor-trailer driver probably was driving too fast on ice and snow when he lost control of his vehicle. Part of the tractor-trailer, which was traveling north, went over the median barrier and collided with two other vehicles in the southbound lanes. According to the NTSB, the student driver probably was suffering from a combination of fatigue, lack of highway lighting and distraction from the collisions in the southbound lanes, and likely did not see that part of the tractor-trailer was in the northbound left lane. Relatives of all the crash victims also have a pending federal lawsuit against the tractor-trailer manufacturer for not putting enough lights on the truck’s trailer.
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