United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania Grants Summary Judgment to National Fraternity Organization and Local Fraternity Chapter in Survival and Wrongful Death Action

In Hall v. Millersville University, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted summary judgment to the Acacia National Fraternity (“Acacia”) and Acacia Fraternity, Millersville (“Chapter 84”) in a survival and wrongful death action filed by the estate of a student (“Hall”)who was murdered by her boyfriend (“Orrostieta”) in her university dorm after attending a fraternity party together. The court found that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had “unequivocally held that a national fraternity is not liable under the social host doctrine for acts of its chapters.” The court also found that although the social host doctrine applies to the local chapter and that it served alcohol to minors, no proximate cause existed “over such unforeseeable, extraordinary act of violence that occurred only after the victim and her boyfriend had already left the party.”

This case stemmed from an incident on February 7-8, 2015 when Hall attended a party with Orrostieta, who was not a student at the university, at the Acacia Chapter 84 house. The two bought $5 cups to consume alcohol at the party. After attending the party, Hall and Orrostieta returned to Hall’s dorm room, where Orrostieta killed Hall through “strangulation and multiple traumatic injuries, and he potentially sexually assaulted her.” Orrostieta was later convicted of third-degree murder. The victim’s estate attributed some responsibility for the death toAcacia and Chapter 84 among other parties, and brought survival and wrongful death actions against multiple parties, including the national and local raternity.

In response both Acacia and Chapter 84 filed motions for summary judgment. In Pennsylvania a social host who serves alcohol to an intoxicated person is not liable for any damages that intoxication causes, whether to the intoxicated person himself or a third party. However, an exception exists where the intoxicated person is a minor. The court found that as held in Alumni Association v. Sullivan, Pennsylvania law is clear that the national fraternity had no duty to a party guest, even if it owned the property where the party occurred. Because Acacia did not intentionally and substantially aid or encourage the consumption of alcohol by minor guests, the court determined that the national chapter could not be found to be a social host. The plaintiffs argued that although the social host doctrine did not apply, Acacia should have been held liable because it held a closer relationship to Chapter 84 by working with it after its it had been deactivated by the university in 2011. The court found that nothing in Sullivan allows a case-by-case inquiry, and even if it did, there was no evidence that Acacia had any control over or knowledge of Chapter 84’s day-to-day activities that would allow it to prevent the February 7-8, 2015 party.

As for Chapter 84, the court also granted summary judgment. Under the social host doctrine, the court found that Chapter 84 could be held liable for injuries suffered by minors; however, thecourt also determined that Plaintiff failed to prove Chapter 84 proximately caused Hall’s death. The court found that the law “draws a line at a third parties’ extraordinary behavior.” The court found no cases supporting the argument that a social host can be held responsible for the intentional crimes an intoxicated minor or adult commits at an entirely different location, and that “no reasonable jury could conclude that murder was an inevitable result of a fraternity party.” Plaintiffs argued in thealternative that Chapter 84 had a duty to intervene because they held a special relationship with Hall under section 314A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts as a possessor of land. The court found that while a duty may have existed while Hall was on their land, a section 314A duty could would not exist after she had left the fraternity property. The Plaintiffs’ final argument was that Chapter 84 owed a duty to rescue Hall. Under Pennsylvania law, the duty to rescue only applies when the defendant is the party who directly subjected the plaintiff to bodily harm. The court rejected the argument that Chapter 84 had somehow indirectly caused Orrostieta to harm Hall by serving Orrostieta alcohol.

The court followed Pennsylvania Supreme Court precedent in holding that a national fraternity organization will not be held liable under the social host doctrine for injuries to minors when a local chapter serves them alcohol where there is no evidence that the national fraternity had the power or resources to control the chapter’s day-to-day activities. The court further held thatalthough a local fraternity chapter may be held liable under social host doctrine when they furnish alcohol to minors, a local fraternity chapter will not be held liable for third-party intentional criminal conduct that occurs off the fraternity property even if they had served the perpetrator alcohol.

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