Garofalo v. Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity, 98-1721.

Citation616 N.W.2d 647
Decision Date07 September 2000
Docket NumberNo. 98-1721.,98-1721.
PartiesEdward GAROFALO and Monica Garofalo, Co-Administrators of the Estate of Mathew Patrick Garofalo, Deceased, Appellants, v. LAMBDA CHI ALPHA FRATERNITY, an Indiana Corporation; Lambda Chi Alpha University of Iowa Chapter, a Voluntary Association; Timothy Reier, an Individual; and Chad Diehl, an Individual, Appellees.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa

Edward J. Gallagher, Jr., and Thomas C. Verhulst of Gallagher, Langlas & Gallagher, P.C., Waterloo, and David C. Wise of Corboy & Demetrio, Chicago, Illinois, for appellants.

Kevin H. Collins of Shuttleworth & Ingersoll, P.C., Cedar Rapids, for appellee, Timothy Reier.

Timothy J. Walker and Roscoe A. Ries, Jr., of Whitfield & Eddy, P.L.C., Des Moines, for appellees Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity and Lambda Chi Alpha University of Iowa Chapter.

Considered en banc.

NEUMAN, Justice.

The principal question on this appeal is whether a "special relationship" exists between a fraternity and its members so as to create a legal duty of care, actionable in tort, when a young initiate's excessive drinking results in death. The district court concluded as a matter of law that no such duty exists under the material facts of this case. It therefore dismissed, on summary judgment, plaintiffs' wrongful death action against their son's national fraternity, its local chapter, and one of his fraternity brothers.

Having now considered the arguments on appeal, a majority of this court affirms dismissal of the action against Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity and Timothy Reier. The district court's decision to dismiss Lambda Chi Alpha University of Iowa Chapter stands affirmed by operation of law. See Iowa Code § 602.4107 (1999). We remand the case for further proceedings against the remaining defendant, Chad Diehl.

I. Scope of Review.

Because this case reaches us on appeal from entry of summary judgment, well-settled rules guide our review. We, like the district court, are obliged to view the factual record in the light most favorable to the resisting party, affording that party all reasonable inferences that the record will bear. Hildenbrand v. Cox, 369 N.W.2d 411, 413 (Iowa 1985). Summary judgment is proper only if the record made shows that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Iowa R. Civ. P. 237(c). "If the conflict in the record concerns only the legal consequences flowing from undisputed facts, entry of summary judgment is proper." Farm Bureau Mut. Ins. Co. v. Milne, 424 N.W.2d 422, 423 (Iowa 1988). Whether a particular duty arises out of the parties' relationships is a matter of law properly resolved in a summary judgment proceeding. Tenney v. Atlantic Assocs., 594 N.W.2d 11, 15 (Iowa 1999); Kelly v. Sinclair Oil Corp., 476 N.W.2d 341, 354 (Iowa 1991). Our review, therefore, is for the correction of errors at law. Sankey v. Richenberger, 456 N.W.2d 206, 207 (Iowa 1990).

With these principles in mind, we turn to the record made before the district court. That record consists of the pleadings, deposition testimony, written institutional policies, and investigative reports of police officers and university officials.

II. Facts.

Appellants Edward and Monica Garofalo are the parents of Matt Garofalo, now deceased, who was an associate member of Lambda Chi Alpha, a national fraternity with a local chapter in Iowa City, Iowa. Matt was nineteen and a sophomore at the University of Iowa when he died from pulmonary edema caused by aspiration of his gastric contents after consuming excessive quantities of beer and hard liquor. Matt consumed the alcohol following a "Big Brother/Little Brother" ceremony at the fraternity house.

The ceremony took place at about 10:00 p.m. on Thursday, September 7, 1995. It lasted fifteen to twenty minutes, followed a script, and culminated in the introduction of each new pledge to his "big brother." The purpose was to establish a mentoring relationship that would last throughout the pledge year. Attendance at the ceremony was not mandatory but most, if not all, of the members took part. No alcohol was served or consumed during the ceremony.

It was traditional following the ceremony for each big brother to invite his new little brother to his room to toast their new relationship with drinks before adjourning to downtown taverns for more serious partying. The beer and liquor consumed for this purpose was purchased by each individual big brother. This was in contrast to other fraternity functions which often involved a "slush fund" collected by the social chairman who then purchased the desired alcoholic beverages. A written fraternity policy prohibited the use of chapter funds to purchase alcohol. The policy likewise directed chapters to conform their liquor possession and distribution practices to state law and institutional policy. It appears these policies were more often honored in their breach. Virtually every witness testified that beer and other alcoholic beverages were made available to members under the legal drinking age of twenty-one. See Iowa Code § 123.47A (1995). Moreover, five out of the six previous visits by national fraternity officers yielded reports suggesting that alcohol emphasis within the context of social development in the house was "strong."

Matt Garofalo's assigned big brother was defendant Chad Diehl. In advance of the ceremony, Diehl purchased beer and a bottle of Southern Comfort with the intent of sharing it with Garofalo. Diehl also purchased beer and vodka for defendant Tim Reier. Reier was an older member, and a big brother, but was under age for purposes of legally purchasing alcohol. The young men set up informal bars in their rooms and shared the liquor with whomever wandered in.

Garofalo drank heavily. He drank straight from the Southern Comfort bottle, as well as other available liquor bottles, along with the forty-ounce Mickey's brew furnished by Diehl. He soon began to stagger and became loud, announcing he would drink everyone else under the table. Diehl told him to "slow down." By 11:30 p.m. it was evident Garofalo was in no shape to go to the downtown bars. He stumbled and fell down a small flight of stairs. Diehl and Reier helped him up and decided he should lie down on a spare couch in Reier's room. At that point Garofalo was conscious and walking under his own power. But they moved him along, in Reier's words, "like an injured player from the field."

Garofalo passed out on the couch. Diehl and Reier positioned him on his side so he would not aspirate in case of vomiting. Around midnight Reier and his little brother headed down to the bars. Diehl stayed with Garofalo for roughly half an hour. He then left to attend to an altercation on the fraternity lawn. No one else took charge of Garofalo. Some time later, Diehl checked on him and found him snoring or, perhaps, "gurgling." Two young women, who had been high school classmates with Garofalo, also checked on him during the early morning hours. One found that someone had drawn a beard on his face with magic marker and painted his ear with whiteout. She wiped off his face but was not otherwise concerned about his wellbeing.

Reier returned to the fraternity house around 3:00 a.m. Garofalo was still on his couch. In Reier's words, "He was snoring and looked fine." Reier turned him over, adjusted his pillow and noted that Garofalo "looked pretty content." Reier awoke at 8:00 a.m., just in time for an 8:30 a.m. class. He glanced at Garofalo as he headed out the door. Garofalo appeared to be sleeping.

Around 11:30 a.m. it was discovered that Garofalo was dead. The rug on the floor nearby was damp and smelled of vomit. A later autopsy estimated the time of death was between 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. His blood alcohol count was .188, leading the medical examiner to conclude Garofalo's alcohol level "may have peaked at .250 to.300% eight hours before he died."

Subsequent investigations led both police and university officials to conclude that no "hazing" was involved in the events in question, i.e., no one intentionally or recklessly engaged in "forced activity" endangering the health or safety of a student as a condition of initiation into the fraternity. See Iowa Code § 708.10 (crime of hazing defined). The assistant dean of students reported that the liquor consumed following the ceremony "had been purchased on an individual basis rather than part of an organized activity." A police report summed up the events this way:

The ceremony may have created an opportunity for members to be together which could have spawned an opportunity to drink alcohol, but the ceremony itself carried no imperative for consumption. Further, it appears that events after the ceremony took on different forms as well. Some members left the area, others remained at the house, while others left for the downtown to "go out" which appears to be typical for the house on a Thursday night. Indications regarding Garofalo's intake of alcohol reflect a decision on his part to consume rather than a mandate from his house mates to that effect.
III. Proceedings.

Garofalo's parents, as co-administrators of his estate, filed a wrongful death action against the national fraternity, its Iowa chapter, Tim Reier, and Chad Diehl, as well as two other members of the Iowa chapter who were later dismissed as parties. Plaintiffs' suit alleged negligence in the defendants' conduct toward Garofalo, both in connection with the big brother/little brother ceremony and in failing to properly care for him after "securing [his] intoxication."

All four defendants moved for summary judgment in advance of trial. As to plaintiffs' claims against Tim Reier, the court found no proof that he affirmatively harmed Garofalo by furnishing him alcohol, nor did their relationship spawn a duty on his part to care for Garofalo once he became inebriated. As for the national fraternity and its local chapter, the...

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