Family settles lawsuit relating to hazing death of fraternity pledge

by John Chapman

A Florida family recently settled a lawsuit relating to the death of their 19 year-old son, who died during a hazing ritual while a pledge of the Theta Chi fraternity. Harrison Kowiak died in November 2008 while a sophomore at Lenoire-Rhyne University in Hickory, North Carolina. The lawsuit against the national fraternity alleged that Kowiak died after being severely injured during hazing activities conducted as part of pledging Theta Chi during its annual “Hell Week.”

According to the lawsuit, Kowiak was pledging the fraternity along with one other student after two other pledges had dropped out. On the night of November 17, 2008, Kowiak and the other pledge were instructed to meet at a dormitory for an undisclosed activity. The two students were blindfolded and driven to a farm off campus for a pledge activity. When they arrived at the farm, their blindfolds were removed and they were told to run across a field to recover their sacred “fraternity rocks,” a symbol of initiation into the fraternity.

As they ran across the dark field, unseen fraternity members dressed in dark clothing repeatedly pushed, shoved and tackled the pledges to prevent them from getting across the field, an activity known as “bulldogging.” Kowiak, who was a scholarship golfer and weighed only 160 pounds, was hit and tackled by numerous Theta Chi members, including football players who weighed in excess of 250 pounds.

After being repeatedly knocked to the ground, Kowiak could no longer stand. He began wheezing and gasping for breath and became unresponsive. Rather than seeking immediate medical attention, the fraternity members attempted to make Kowiak walk. They eventually placed him in a student’s car. During a 20-minute car ride to the nearest hospital, Kowiak suffered seizures. After arriving at the hospital, Kowiak was care-flighted to a Charlotte hospital, where he died the next day from a severe subdural hematoma.

Kowiak’s family sued the national Theta Chi fraternity, the local fraternity chapter, the university and numerous fraternity members. The case eventually settled for more than $4.6 million.

The Kowiak case is one in a long and unfortunate string of hazing deaths throughout the U.S. A 2008 University of Maine study concluded that 55 percent of students who join fraternities, sororities, sports teams or other student groups experience hazing of some form. A leading hazing researcher claims that there have been at least 104 hazing deaths in the U.S. since 1970 and that 80 percent of those deaths involved alcohol. Fraternities are a fertile ground for alcohol-fueled tragedies; a 2000 Harvard study showed that 4 of 5 fraternity and sorority members in this country are binge drinkers.

If your child has been seriously injured or killed as a result of a hazing incident, you may be entitled to compensation from those responsible. To find out if you may have a case, contact the lawyers at Heygood, Orr & Pearson by calling toll-free at 1-877-446-9001, or by filling out our free case evaluation form.