This week the Huffington Post report reported that the family of a Yale University undergrad who died in a tragic car accident while tailgating at a football game sued all of the decedent’s fraternity brothers at the party for contributing to the death of this young man. The estate had originally sued only the fraternity corporation itself, but the insurance carrier for the fraternity denied coverage. So this week, the lawyer for the decedent reluctantly sued each fraternity brother, claiming he was left “no choice” but to go after each of them, in their individual capacities, for their participation in the tailgating party. Now their personal assets, their savings accounts, their future wages, their parents’ homes, their parents’ savings accounts, and all of their respective futures are on the line.
The incident appears to be a tragic and horrific accident. The student who accidentally caused the death of the victim was criminally charged by New Haven police, but was granted a court diversionary program, which if successfully completed, will result in the dismissal of his case and the ultimate erasure of his arrest. If a criminal judge can acknowledge this was an accident, then why does the issue have to escalate in civil court?
As a trial attorney who practices both civil and criminal law, I am often asked to take on cases that seek to assign civil liability and damages against individuals and businesses for what could appear at first glance to be an honest mistake or accident. Accidents happen, You cross your fingers that you or your loved ones are not victimized by them. The question remains then—can the criminal or civil justice process bring closure or satisfaction to victims of an honest accident?
A case like this begs important questions for our victim representation practice here at the Mark Sherman Law Firm. And they are not easy ones to answer and resolve. Our victim representation practice, led by me and our in-house Victim Advocate Christine Bartlett—a veteran Criminal Court Victim Advocate who has advocated on behalf of hundreds of domestic violence victims in Stamford and Norwalk Superior Court prior to joining Mark Sherman Law—carefully assess each case where we are asked to represent victims. We present our victim clients with all of their alternatives in the criminal case they are involved in. As a victim in a criminal case, they have various rights that need to be exercised at certain points of the criminal case. We also present the victim and their families with their options for civil recourse and remedies—whether it be a civil lawsuit for money damages, a civil restraining order, media strategies, or an application for benefits from State of Connecticut’s Victim Compensation Fund. Whatever the resolution, our Victim Representation Practice—in domestic violence court and otherwise—prides itself on its responsiveness, sensitivity, and aggressiveness.
Another issue that jumps out of this Yale case is whether any of the other fraternity brothers could be held criminally liable for the death at the tailgate party. While this tragedy not appear to arise from any allegations of fraternity hazing, the hazing issue is of critical concern to college and high school administrations who have seen a surge in hazing cases coming out of fraternity, sorority and sports teams. The most applicable criminal law that jumps out at me is Connecticut General Statutes §§ 53a-63 and 53a-64 – Reckless Endangerment in the First and Second Degrees. If you engage in reckless conduct which creates a risk of serious physical injury (First Degree) or just physical injury (Second Degree), then you can be charged with this crime. Clearly some hazing rituals like forced drinking binges, sexual suggestive escapades, drug use, and starvation can lead to Connecticut Reckless Endangerment Charges.
A final issue that hits home with the announcement of this Yale civil lawsuit is how lawyers can try to reach way beyond a college student and into the pockets of their parents or even into the future of the student. Here, each of these 86 students now must cross their fingers that (1) their parents have homeowners / umbrella insurance policies, and (2) that these policies will defend and cover them in this lawsuit. If not, then each student is on their own, will have to pay thousands of dollars to defend against this lawsuit, and will surely be dealing with repercussions of this lawsuit well beyond their tenure at Yale University (i.e. the pending lawsuit will come up on any high level employment background check, car loan application, mortgage loan application, etc.).
For all the reasons above, if you find yourself wrongfully sued in civil court, you need to call a top Connecticut civil personal injury lawyer. Alternatively, if you are charged with Reckless Endangerment, Assault, DUI / DWI, Assault with a Motor Vehicle, or any other charge that has caused injury to a third party, you should immediately contact a top criminal lawyer in Stamford, Greenwich, Darien, New Canaan, Norwalk, Westport, Wilton, or Fairfield. They will help you work with your insurance company and get started immediately on damage control. Be sure to make that call—the stakes are just too high.