Blog : California

Carson’s Story: A Hazing Death Remembered

We were lead counsel for the estate and family of Carson Starkey, who died as a result of being hazed during the pledge process of Sigma Alpha Epsilon at California Polytechnic University and San Luis Obispo.  The fraternity’s chapter had a long-standing ritual of hazing that included a “brown bag night,” an event celebrating and coupled with the pledges’ introduction to their respective big brothers.  This type of event, known widely as Big Brother Night,  is considered one of the “three deadly nights” by fraternities since it has historically involved binge drinking, family drinks, and the provision of dangerous quantities of alcohol to fraternity pledges.  Carson’s big brother selected a wide-array of alcohol for Carson to consume in the circle of pledges in order to demonstrate his commitment to brotherhood.  One fraternity officer also began passing around “everclear” for the pledges to drink, and Carson lost consciousness shortly thereafter.  Though fraternity members recognized his need for emergency medical attention, actually placing him in a car to go to the hospital, the fraternity members aborted the trip to the hospital, placed Carson on a mattress, and left him unattended.  His death was entirely preventable.   As always, the national fraternity, chapter, and members argued that they were not legally responsible for Carson’s death.  Extensive discovery was conducted that demonstrated the very opposite, and the motions filed by defendants to protect them from liability were denied by the court.  The case settled for a substantial confidential sum.  In negotiations, we (Carson’s family) were successful in negotiating substantial changes in the way Cal Poly permits fraternities to operate on its campus.  We were also successful in negotiating substantial changes in the way SAE operates, including compelling it to publicly report where it and its chapters have been sanctioned by universities for risk management violations.  Because colleges, administrators, legislatures, parents, students and others have been denied access to the “truth” about fraternity misconduct, the public health risks and dangers to college students have never been adequately understood and addressed.  And, fraternities have never been called upon to broadly account for the real dangers their traditions and unsupervised, dangerous practices pose.  This was the first time ever that such reporting has been done by a fraternity, whether voluntarily or compelled.  We also negotiated a substantial annual payment by SAE to the non-profit organization established by the Starkey family, Aware Awake Alive, that has been instrumental in changing laws across the country, educating students and families, and saving lives.  Carson’s Story has been shown to high school and college students and personnel across the country.

Estate of Deceased College Student v. Theta Chi Fraternity, et al.

Were lead counsel for the estate and family of Philip Dhanens for a wrongful death lawsuit resulting from fraternity hazing by the Theta Chi Fraternity chapter at California State University at Fresno.  Fraternity pledges were compelled to drink dangerous amounts of alcohol on the evening they accepted their bid to pledge the fraternity.  Philip collapsed and was not taken to the hospital or properly monitored by fraternity members.  The case against all defendants, including the national fraternity, local chapter, and members, was resolved for a confidential significant financial amount at mediation.

Estate of Matthew Carrington v. Chi Tau, et al.

Were lead counsel for the estate and family of Matthew Carrington, who died as a result of a fraternity hazing tradition that required pledges to consume gallons of water as a condition of joining the fraternity.  The fraternity chapter at the University of California, Chico had been expelled by the national fraternity for misconduct preceding Matt’s death.  Nevertheless, it continued to operate on its own and initiate members.  A lawsuit was filed against the national fraternity, former local chapter, and numerous fraternity members.  Motions filed by defendants to evade liability for Matt’s death were filed, opposed by our firm, and denied.  The case settled for a confidential substantial sum prior to trial.  Thereafter, we advised the family about necessary legislative changes and Matt’s Mom, Debbie Smith, convinced the California Legislature and Governor Schwarzenegger to enact “Matt’s Law,” which offers greater protection to and remedies for students and families harmed by fraternity hazing.  “Campus Nightmares,” a Lifetime Movie Network series, documents Matt’s life, the circumstances of his death, and has been viewed by thousands of people as part of the unending, successful efforts by Debbie Smith to educate the public about dangerous fraternity hazing and save lives.

College Student v. Lambda Chi Alpha, et al.

With Ivo Labor, Esq., of San Francisco, California, retained by a student at San Diego State University who suffered a traumatic brain injury, resulting in serious and permanent impairment, following an evening of hazing by the fraternity and its members. The case is currently in litigation.

Estate of Matthew Carrington v. Chi Tau, et al.

Represented the family of a college student who died during a local fraternity initiation at California State University at Chico.  Suit was filed in May 2005 against numerous individuals and fraternity organizations.  The case was settled with significant financial settlements from many of the defendants.  The case has been portrayed in numerous national stories concerning the dangers of hazing, and the client’s surviving mother was successful in causing passage of landmark anti-hazing legislation in California.