Blog : Settlement

Fierberg Comments on DA’s Decision to Drop Two High-Profile Campus Rape Cases

Fulton County District Attorney will not bring charges against the assailants involved in campus rape cases at Morehouse College and Georgia Tech.

The three Morehouse basketball players accused of sexually assaulting a Spelman College student in March 2013 were arrested in April 2013 on various assault and rape charges, released on bond, and suspended from Morehouse while Howard’s office investigated. In the second case, Caleb Ackerman, the Georgia Tech student accused of raping an Agnes Scott College Student at his fraternity house in January 2014, was expelled from the university.

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Howard (pictured above) will not bring charges in two high-profile campus rape cases. Kent D. Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Georgia Tech case garnered national attention, in part, because Ackerman’s fraternity, Phi Kappa Tau, drew public scrutiny after an email surfaced from one member instructing others how to lure “rapebait” by plying female guests with alcohol.

When the first victim came forward with her allegations of rape after drinking alcohol provided by Phi Kappa Tau members at their fraternity house, another Agnes Scott student followed suit, telling Georgia Tech police Ackerman had raped her in 2012 at an event held at the fraternity house. While the second women did not wish to pursue criminal charges against Ackerman, both women sued the fraternity, saying it “promoted a rampant culture of rape and misogyny.”

Attorney Douglas Fierberg, represented both women in the civil case against the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity that settled about a year ago for an undisclosed sum. Fierberg says Howard’s delay was unwarranted.

“We were able to bring a (civil) case forward, prove what needed to be proven and reach a resolution long before the state decided to move or not,” Fierberg said.

The long delay of Paul Howard’s decision – over two years – prompted complaints that both the accused and the victims were left in limbo.

“No prosecution makes no sense,” said Fierberg.

Click here to read the article in its entirety.

Doug Fierberg Comments On Death Of Willem Golden In delawareonline Article

Willem Golden passed away after falling from the roof at University of Delaware Sigma Pi fraternity house.

With any devastating circumstance, questions mount – how does a community prevent future tragedies and who should be held responsible?

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The rooftop Willem Golden fatally fell from, at 153 W. Main St. in Newark. Xerxes Wilson/The News Journal

University of Delaware’s unofficial Sigma Pi house offers a text-book example of potential code violations, including broken glass, dangling electric cords, and a barbecue grill strapped outside a third-story window. And while over 1,000 fraternities in the International Conference have gone dry, Sigma Pi isn’t one of them.

Douglas Fierberg – a nationally acclaimed wrongful death attorney representing clients who have sued universities, national fraternities and local chapter members for alcohol-related student deaths – tells delawareonline: 

“Even if a party is held at an off-campus unofficial fraternity house, the hosts and the organization may still be liable. These organizations need to be rendered safe, there is no excuse for not intervening.”

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Students, faculty and staff gather at Skidmore College at a memorial for Willem Golden. Eric Jenks/Skidmore College

Fierberg represented the family of Brett Griffen, the University of Delaware student who died as a result of alcohol poisoning in 2008. The Griffen’s brought suit against University of Delaware calling for its Greek life websites to list all violations against fraternities and sororities.  Despite the attainment of policy change at University of Delaware, Fierberg urges families to remain cautious:

“Colleges and universities continue to publish vague information – if they publish it at all – about fraternity interactions, including deadly hazing rituals and sexual assaults. We’re still facing significant problems because most universities refuse to tell the truth about student deaths at Greek organizations.”

School Violence Law offers our deepest condolences to the Golden family during this difficult time.

Click here to read the delawareonline article in its entirety.

Universities and Fraternities Fail to Tell the Truth about Fraternity Rape, Fraternity Hazing and Other Misconduct

The investigative findings (state and federal) resulting from the massacre at Virginia Tech, along with other legal precedent, establish that the campus community is entitled to timely, accurate information about risks.  As the Report prepared at the request of the Virginia Governor provides, “Nearly everyone [on campus] is adult and capable of making decisions about potentially dangerous situations to safeguard themselves.”  Universities and fraternities must telling the truth and provide warnings to the adult students on campus concerning dangers facing them in seeking fraternity membership or participating in fraternity events.  If not, they may be liable for legal claims based upon fraud, negligent misrepresentation, violation of consumer protection statutes and other theories of law.

Virtually every university that allows Greek organizations to operate on campus enables them to use university resources, staff, and website.  Those resources are almost exclusively used to promote the organizations.  For example, one Ivy League university’s Associate Dean of Students posted a Parents’ Letter on the university website proclaiming that its Greek community is “among the best in the nation,” and a community that does not live up to the stereotypical “negative images portrayed in popular media.”  This communication is consistent with information generally parroted on university websites across the nation.  Yet, this information is false and misleading.  At the very time period covering publication of this statement, the university had documented:  204 incidents of social fraternity misconduct; 82 incidents of fraternity hazing; 3 sexual assaults in fraternity houses; and 9 incidents of fighting at fraternity houses.  Its statistics indicated substantial annual increases in misconduct and were consistent with national studies regarding fraternities, hazing, rape and related risks.  For example, the average FAQ webpage published by universities, including information posted for parents, poses questions that only highlight the purported benefits of Greek membership.  Some questions actually dissuade students and parents from considering the risks.

A prominent Midwest university posted similar pro-fraternity material and FAQs on its website, yet failed to disclose that there were 10 allegations of sexual assault involving fraternities during one recent semester.  Though two fraternities were ultimately disciplined as a result of such allegations, the University then failed to disclose that the sanctions were based upon allegations of rape and sexual assault.  Instead, the university wrote an opaque description of the incidents, stating that sanctions were warranted because the fraternities failed to “provide a safe environment during parties where alcohol is present.”  Whatever that means . . . .

Parents, students, and the campus community had no reasonable way of ascertaining that specific fraternities were disciplined because of sexual assaults reported by numerous female students.  There is no rational or privacy basis for the university – a state institution in this case – to withhold this information.  Women are entitled to know if the fraternity house they are invited to has recently been the scene of reported sexual assaults.  Women are entitled to know if the University and fraternities’ agreement to allow self-management by fraternities has proven to be unsafe.  Students must not be denied knowledge of the truth and opportunities to protect themselves from risks known by the university and fraternities.

The failure by universities to accurately and fully disclose known dangers and potential risks posed by Greek organizations may violate certain laws and enforceable legal duties.  This is true because it is generally established that a university’s exclusive knowledge of such risks may create a special relationship requiring timely, accurate disclosure of such risks.  Moreover, failure to disclose the truth may expose a University or fraternity to claims of fraud, as “a representation stating the truth so far as it goes but which the maker knows or believes to be materially misleading because of his failure to state additional or qualifying matter is a fraudulent misrepresentation.”  And, where there is evidence of an intentional misrepresentation, such as, perhaps, where a university specifically chooses to omit the words “rape” or “sexual assault” from the description of a fraternity’s sanction, a victim who subsequently suffers injury having been denied such truth and the opportunity to take action to prevent such harm may be entitled to punitive damages.  Of course, the law varies from state to state so the above information is not intended to provide particular legal advice to a particular person concerning the law in his/her state.  You should, however, check the law in your own state and, if represented by legal counsel, ask her/him about these issues.

In short, the law demands that universities and fraternities end the longstanding practice of obscuring the truth – or failing to warn – about the risks of Greek membership and activities.  Victims of these misrepresentations may have enforceable rights, and, perhaps, the legal power to change the way these institutions choose to do their business.

Wesleyan Fraternities to be Co-ed

Wesleyan University in Connecticut has ordered its residential fraternities to admit both men and women.  Fraternities have three years to complete the transition.  This policy change comes after a rash of injuries and assaults have recently plagued fraternity houses, including a recent fall from the Beta Theta Pi house that caused serious injuries to Summer Elbardissy.

Having represented two students seriously injured at Wesleyan fraternities before, including at Beta House, we are aware of the dangers.  We hope this change fosters a safer environment for everyone involved in Wesleyan fraternities.

Douglas Fierberg Featured In TIME Magazine

Douglas Fierberg founded the only nationwide practice and specialty of representing victims of violence in school-related incidents, and serves as lead counsel for victims of sexual violence, hazing and other crimes at schools and universities across the country.

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Co-author Chris D. DeJong is a litigation paralegal responsible for all aspects of legal claims on behalf of victims of sexual violence and other misconduct at schools and universities nationwide.

Universities and fraternities hide the truth about sexual violence on campus even though women need this information in order to protect themselves. While universities are required by federal law to publicly report certain incidents of crime, including rape, those reports are often inaccurate and never detailed. In fall 2010, there were between three and 10 allegations (the actual number remains guesswork) of women being raped at the University of Minnesota. At least three of those women alleged being raped in fraternity houses. The school lists the sanctions it imposed against fraternities on its website but sanctions issued during that time period are for the group’s failure to “provide a safe environment during parties where alcohol is present.” Rape was never mentioned.

Women are entitled to know if the fraternity house they may visit has allegedly been a scene of sexual violence. Worse yet, fraternity lawyers guard existing document of sexual violence at fraternities, most likely because the information would shock the public. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners ranked fraternities as the sixth worst insurance risk in this country, just behind hazardous waste disposal companies and asbestos contractors. One insurance broker for fraternities boasts of handling more than 6,000 claims and $60,000,000 in payouts. There are many hurt women in those numbers. Insurance brokers for the industry maintain and analyze statistics on sexual violence in order to establish premium rates. Fraternities and their insurance brokers have fought our attempts to gain access to these statistics. They’ve also blocked our efforts to obtain their analysis of alcohol-free housing (AFH), which one study concludes would reduce incidents of injury and death in fraternities by 75%. Those statistics will likely demonstrate that requiring fraternities to go AFH will spare many women from being plied with alcohol and raped.

Alcohol-free housing is critical because fraternities rely on underage, inexperienced, and often intoxicated fraternity members to protect women in chapter housing. These students are legally prohibited from managing the service of alcohol, yet they are given the green light by universities. The fox supervises the hen house, but this fox hurts people. Universities do not manage dormitories in this reckless manner. Obscuring the truth is not acceptable. Universities and fraternities must tell the whole truth so that students can understand the risks and protect themselves.

Read the article on Time Magazine’s website.

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.

HAZE: The Gordie Bailey Story

Douglas Fierberg served as lead trial counsel for wrongful death claims against a national fraternity and its members in connection with the hazing death of Gordie Bailey at the University of Colorado.  Gordie was a wonderful young man, excelling in sports and academics, and deeply loved by his parents and sister.  Gordie attended college and made the critical mistake of joining a fraternity that had a longstanding, secret practice of hazing pledges.  The fraternity’s hazing involved compelling pledges to drink dangerous amounts of alcohol during pledge events, including the tradition where a pledge is assigned a “big brother.”  These events are widely referred to by fraternities as the “three deadly nights.”  Though these traditions have resulted in death and serious injuries for decades, fraternities have refused to make meaningful changes that would eliminate these rituals.  Gordie became incapacitated and collapsed in a common area of the fraternity house.  Rather than obtain required medical assistance, the fraternity brothers wrote all over his body with sharpies and, then, left him unattended.  He died as a result.  The national fraternity and members disclaimed any liability for Gordie’s death and, then, argued that his family’s right to a financial recovery was limited by an arbitrary statutory cap on damages.  We prevailed against the defendants on numerous pre-trial motions, and the case then settled for a confidential substantial amount far in excess of the statutory cap.  The national fraternity was also required to institute a number of non-economic changes to make its operations safer.  Below is a link to the powerful film, “Haze,” that was produced by Gordie’s loving parents in order to warn others of the dangers of fraternity hazing.  Haze is narrated by Robin Penn Wright and has been shown to thousands of students and families across the country.

Virginia Tech Massacre

In re April 16, 2007 Massacre at Virginia Tech University.  Represent 20 families who suffered devastating losses as a result of the massacre of students and faculty on the campus of Virginia Tech.  Numerous clients lost loved ones, while others suffered severe and permanent injuries as a result of violent gunshot wounds.  While Virginia Tech was widely praised (by its own officials and from many outside sources) for its handling of the events leading to and following the tragedy, our investigation revealed substantial evidence demonstrating the University’s potential liability for gross negligence.  That evidence included the disclosure of e-mails from University personnel confirming that certain buildings had gone into lockdown following the murders in West Ambler Johnston and prior to the onset of the larger massacre at Norris Hall, and that University personnel had been warned to stay off campus before Cho opened fire at Norris Hall.  As well, the evidence revealed that the University Policy Group revised the e-mail correspondence ultimately sent out at 9:26 a.m., removing references to the facts that one student had died and another was in critical condition at an area hospital as a result of gunshot wounds suffered in a dormitory room.

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