Thursday, August 29, 2019

Judge Brann of Federal Middle District Issues Opinion Addressing Motions to Dismiss and/or Stay in College Hazing Case

In the case of Piazza v. Young, No. 4:19-cv-00128 (M.D. Pa. Aug. 27, 2019 Brann, J.), the court addressed various Motions to Dismiss and Motions to Stay in a civil lawsuit arising out of the fatal injuries sustained by a student at Penn State allegedly as a result of hazing activities in a fraternity.  The court granted the motions in part and denied the motions in part.  

Of note, with respect to those fraternity brothers Defendants who were under the age of 21, the court allowed the claims of the Plaintiff to proceed against those underaged Defendants under the Plaintiff’s theory of recovery to hold the Defendants liable for breaching an alleged protective duty that the Defendants, as fraternity members, allegedly owed to the Plaintiff’s son, a fraternity pledge. 

Judge Matthew W. Brann
M.D. Pa.
In this regard, Judge Brann refused to apply the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Kapres v. Heller, 640 A.2d 888 (Pa. 1994) in as an expansive manner as requested by those moving Defendants who were under the age of 21.   Under the Kapres case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court generally ruled that individuals under the age of 21 cannot be held liable under the social host doctrine to a guest or third party injured on the premises relative to the service of  alcohol. 

The court in this Piazza case refused to read the Kapres case as immunizing the fraternity Defendants in this case from alleged liability for their otherwise allegedly wrongful conduct that involved the provision of alcohol.   See Op. at 16-18.  The court also noted that an expansive reading of the Kapres decision in the context of this case would not serve to further the social utility of the Pennsylvania statutes against hazing activities.

However, the court did otherwise note that the Plaintiff’s separate claim for negligence per se relative to the service of alcohol asserted against the fraternity Defendants who were under the age of 21 should be dismissed under the rationale of the Kapres case.  

This Opinion is also notable for the court’s review of the law pertaining to allegations of breach and causation, hazing allegations, allegations of civil conspiracy and claims of battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress.  

The court ruled that those defendants who acted to aid plaintiff after his accident can be liable under Restatement §§323, 324A for negligently failing to seek professional medical help.  However, the court found that other defendants who did not act to aid the Plaintiff could not be found to be liable for failing to render any aid as there is no cognizable duty under these facts to rescue in the first place.

Judge Brann also found that a negligence per se claim based upon an alleged violation of Pennsylvania’s anti-hazing statute is a viable claim. 

The Plaintiff’s intentional infliction of emotional distress claim was dismissed under the rationale that an alleged attempted cover up of the incident did not amount to an intent to inflict emotional distress on anyone.

The court additionally denied the Motion to Dismiss the claims of punitive damages asserted in this matter.   The court noted that it has routinely declined to dismiss punitive damages demands at the Motion to Dismiss stage of the case and prior to discovery.  

Judge Brann also addressed separate Motions to Stay filed by several Defendants who have been criminally charged arising out of the same incident.  

On this issue, the court reviewed the six (6) factors required under the case of Barker v. Kane, 49 F.Supp. 3rd 521, 525-26 (M.D. Pa. 2016) and granted this in part and denied it in part.   Essentially, the court denied the request to stay the matter but crafted the remedy that entitles certain Defendants to exercise their right against self-incrimination.   The court noted that certain Defendants would not be required to  answer any pleadings or discovery or participate in any depositions that would implicate their Fifth Amendment Right against self-incrimination by engaging in such pleadings and discovery.  

Anyone wishing to review this decision by Judge Brann may click this LINK.

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