HARTFORD, Conn. – A fraternity can be sued for alleged negligence in connection with a 2003 crash that killed four Yale University students, including two members of the school's baseball team, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
The students were returning from a Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity event for pledges in New York City on Jan. 17, 2003, when their SUV slammed into a tractor-trailer that had crashed on Interstate 95 in Fairfield at around 5 a.m.
Relatives of one of the victims alleged in a lawsuit 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 allegedly hazed.
The Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned a lower court ruling in favor of the fraternity and said the lawsuit can proceed.
The crash killed the driver, Sean Fenton, 20, of Newport Beach, Calif., and three of four back seat passengers -- Andrew Dwyer, 19, of Hobe Sound, Fla.; Nicholas Grass, 19, of Holyoke, Mass; and Kyle Burnat, 19, of Atlanta. Grass and Burnat 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 by the administrator for Grass' estate, attorney Marc Grenier, 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 claims the fraternity had a duty to provide safe transportation home and negligently chose Fenton as the driver, even though he had had little sleep that week and had been up for nearly 20 hours before the accident.
"It's a sad case," said Michael Stratton, a Stamford attorney for the Grass family. "We have a Yale fraternity here with lots of resources that, instead of getting a car service back from the city, the fraternity leaders instructed ... pledges to get in the back of an SUV with a very young, inexperienced driver."
Messages were left Wednesday for Delta Kappa Epsilon attorneys and for officials at the fraternity's national office in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Lawyers for the fraternity said in court documents that Delta Kappa Epsilon shouldn't be held liable because it couldn't have foreseen the "series of unfortunate events" that led to the accident.
The lawsuit also claimed the state DOT and two construction companies were liable for alleged safety hazards at the highway construction site where the tractor-trailer crashed. Other victims' families sued the state and the two companies. Claims against the state were dismissed because of government immunity from lawsuits, while the construction companies entered into settlements, lawyers in the cases said.
Superior Court Judge John F. Blawie found in favor of the fraternity in September 2009, saying national and local fraternity leaders didn't owe Grass a "duty of care" while transporting him back to New Haven from New York. Grenier appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court.
Justice Flemming L. Norcott Jr. wrote 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 Fenton 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.
Fenton 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, the NTSB said.
Relatives of all the crash victims, including Fenton, also have a pending federal lawsuit against the tractor-trailer manufacturer for not putting enough lights on the truck's trailer, Stratton said.