Across the country, as college students return to campus with masks and hand sanitizer, fraternities and sororities are doing what they’ve always done: drinking and partying.
At the University of Washington this summer, 137 students living in frat houses tested positive for the coronavirus after hosting raucous parties that violated their own internal guidelines. At the University of Alabama, students completed an entirely virtual rush process that ended with new members showing up in person to sorority houses, packing themselves together to take photos and then crowding the neighboring bars. The next week, the university announced more than 500 cases on campus.
For responsible students and their families, who could fall ill or have their classes canceled due to their classmates’ Greek Life antics, it all seems ripe for a lawsuit, right?
Two attorneys who specialize in litigation against frats told The Daily Beast they have received multiple inquiries from concerned students or parents wondering what their legal rights are when it comes to potential super-spreader events on their campus.
Attorney Douglas Fierberg said filing a lawsuit is absolutely an option, arguing that violating public health rules around coronavirus is no different than violating other safety rules, like a speed limit.
“The violation of [safety rules] by someone with no excuse or justification renders them responsible for the harm that’s caused,” he told The Daily Beast. “That precedent has been around since the dawn of American jurisprudence.”
But David Bianchi, an attorney who helped draft Florida's anti-hazing law, said it isn’t so simple. In order to win such a suit, the plaintiff would have to prove not only that the defendant acted negligently, but that the negligent behavior directly caused them harm. And in a pandemic—where the virus could be picked up anywhere from a frat house to a grocery store parking lot—that could be difficult to prove.
“The defense lawyer will have a field day asking questions of the plaintiff about every single place they went for the seven days before the fraternity party, the seven days after the fraternity party, and they’re going to come up with a list of 50 places,” he said. “How do you prove that that’s not where they got it from?”
Bianchi said half a dozen parents called his office asking about the possibility of filing a lawsuit, and he told them not to bother.
“I call ’em like I see ’em, and I just don’t see it here,” he said.
Lawsuits against Greek organizations, for everything from wrongful death to sexual assault, are big business for personal injury attorneys. (In 2018, the parents of a freshman at Northern Illinois University won a historic $14 million settlement after their son died at a fraternity party.)
And there’s no question that some are bracing for suits against fraternal organizations: Holmes Murphy, an independent insurance brokerage with a speciality in frats, wrote a blog post on how clients could avoid trouble.
“We’ve received many questions about whether or not a house corporation has a duty to do anything,” the post said. “This is a question that will ultimately be tested after a case and spread within a house occurs. There is certainly no shortage of lawsuits as a result of the pandemic. Ultimately, doing the right thing comes first. Start with the basics. That may be all you can do. But, it is better than doing nothing.”
What’s more hazy is the prospect for coronavirus lawsuits in general. Thousands of suits have been filed since the pandemic started—against schools, businesses, prisons, and pretty much anywhere else you can pick up a virus—but few have been decided. Some legislators have also pushed for laws giving businesses widespread legal immunity, in hopes of getting the economy back up and running.
On college campuses, Fierberg said, legal actions may not happen right away—classes have only just started, and it takes time for someone to get infected, suffer a grievous injury, and find a lawyer. He predicted a rash of such suits in the next six months to a year.
“The time period that this is incubating is now,” he said. “What’s gonna happen in that experiment is yet to entirely show itself. If it comes out as Frankenstein then that’s one thing. If it comes out as something nice… well that’s a different thing."