3729321303_9c50b52643_zWhile participating in a social event at a college fraternity, a young man becomes intoxicated, loses consciousness, and ultimately dies. Is there any theory pursuant to which the officers, pledge board members or even the fraternity itself might be liable to the young man’s estate in tort? The Illinois Supreme Court agreed to decide these issues in the closing days of its September term, allowing a petition for leave to appeal in Bogenberger v. Pi Kappa Alpha Corporation, a decision from Division One of the First District.

According to the plaintiffs’ fifth amended complaint, the executive officers and various pledge board members of the defendant fraternity decided to hold a “Mom and Dad’s Night” pledge event at their fraternity on November 1, 2012. Pledges were allegedly told that participation in the event was mandatory. The complaint alleged that the fraternity stationed two or three “Greek couples” in each room of the fraternity. When the pledges entered each room, they were allegedly asked certain questions, and regardless of their answers, pressured to consume vodka given by the active members. After progressing through all seven members, a pledge would have allegedly consumed between three and five glasses of vodka within an hour and a half. When the pledges could no longer walk on their own, they were allegedly taken to the basement of the fraternity house. Several lost consciousness. Officers and active members allegedly checked on the pledges occasionally and adjusted their positions so they would not choke, but the complaint alleged that active members and officers decided to instruct members not to call 911 or otherwise seek medical care for them. The decedent died with a blood alcohol level of 0.43.

The complaint named a host of defendants, including the fraternity, the executive officers and pledge board members, certain additional active members, and various nonmembers. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss. The trial court granted the motion. The court acknowledged that Quinn v. Sigma Rho Chapter, 155 Ill. App.3d 231 (1987) and Haben v. Anderson, 232 Ill. App.3d 260 (1992) stand for the proposition that a cause of action can be stated in tort when conduct violates the Hazing Act, and the plaintiff is required to drink to intoxication to become a member. However, the court questioned the continuing vitality of Quinn and Haben given the Supreme Court’s subsequent decision in Charles v. Siegfried, 165 Ill.2d 482 (1995). The First District reversed in part.

The fundamental common law rule in Illinois has been that no cause of action arises out of the sale or gift of alcoholic beverages, because the law views the cause of the injury as being the consumption rather than the sale/gift of the beverage. The Illinois legislature long ago created an exception to this proposition by enacting the Dramshop Act in 1872. But less than 20 years after the Dramshop Act, the Supreme Court flatly refused to extend the principle to social hosts – a principle which it has reaffirmed many times since. Most recently in Charles, the Supreme Court refused to adopt a limited duty for knowingly serving alcohol to minors who become intoxicated and suffer serious injury or death, reiterating the no social host liability exists in Illinois.

The plaintiffs argued that their complaint did not allege a social host theory, but rather a Hazing Act theory under Quinn and Haben. The Appellate Court agreed, holding that where a person is required to consume excessive amounts of alcohol in order to become a member of an exclusive, valued organization, such allegations no longer describe a mere social host situation. The Appellate Court analyzed the Supreme Court’s social host cases in detail, concluding that none of them had swept so broadly as to eliminate the limited liability established in Quinn and Haben.

The Appellate Court found that the complaint sufficiently alleged facts to support liability on the theory that the decedent had been required to drink to extreme intoxication in violation of the Hazing Act. The Court further held that the complaint sufficiently alleged a cause of action against several defendants based on a voluntary undertaking theory, since several members had allegedly conducted the pledges to the basement. The complaint further sufficiently pled a cause of action against the fraternity chapter, since the elected officers and pledge board members had allegedly been acting within the scope of their authority in planning and executing the event.

The Court affirmed dismissal as to the parent corporations of the fraternity, holding that recognition of a tort duty would represent an unrealistic burden on the parent. The Court also affirmed dismissal as to the nonmember defendants, since they had no authority to determine who would become members of the fraternity under Quinn and Haben. Finally, the Court affirmed dismissal as to the landlord of the fraternity house, finding that the plaintiffs had failed to allege sufficient facts to support its conclusory allegations that the landlord knew what kinds of events were occurring at the house.

Justice Connors specially concurred in the unanimous decision.

We expect Bogenberger to be decided in summer or early fall 2017.

Image courtesy of Flickr by PhotographerPandora (no changes).