Brett Griffin, 18, of Kendall Park, N.J., died on Nov. 8, 2008, of alcohol poisoning after he drank heavily at the Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity’s “Big Brother” party.
(Photo: Provided to The Wilmington, Del., News Journal)
WILMINGTON, Del. - Two former fraternity brothers are not responsible for a pledge's hazing death in 2008, a jury in a civil trial ruled Friday.
Brett Griffin, 18, of Kendall Park, N.J., died early Nov. 8, 2008, from alcohol poisoning after a night of drinking at a Sigma Alpha Mu "Big Brother" party.His parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the national fraternity and several members in 2009, settling before the trial with all but former chapter president Jason Aaron and former pledge master Matthew Siracusa.
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"This is the reason kids are still dying from hazing in 2013," Julie Griffin, Brett Griffin's mother, said as she left the courtroom. "Everyone wants to blame it on the kids."
Doug Fierberg, a lawyer for Julie and Timothy Griffins, declined to comment.
Stephen Casarino, Siracusa's defense lawyer, said the jury, which deliberated six hours, gave no message in its verdict.
"I think the jury did its job," Casarino said.
Lawyers for Aaron and Siracusa had argued that Aaron and Siracusa weren't liable because they didn't participate in any hazing of Brett Griffin and no one forced the pledge to drink. The jury found that Aaron did not haze Brett Griffin nor fail in his duty to protect a pledge.
Siracusa was found to have hazed Brett Griffin, but the jury said that the hazing was not why the freshman died.
Brett Griffin died with a blood-alcohol level of 0.341, more than four times the threshold for drunken driving, hours after he and other pledges drank heavily at the party. Witnesses had testified about a fraternity tradition that a pledge was supposed to consume a full bottle of alcohol with his fraternity big brother that night.
The teenage pledge consumed the equivalent of a 750-milliliter bottle of Southern Comfort, a medical expert said.
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During the trial Aaron and Siracusa both told the jury that much of what went on in the pledge process at Sigma Alpha Mu was dictated by an unwritten tradition that they could not stop. They had said they knew at the time that the fraternity was violating a restriction that the University of Delaware placed on it a week earlier but fraternity members decided to go ahead with the party anyway.
Fraternity members did some "dumb stuff but nothing ever to hurt anybody," said Siracusa, now in law school, after the verdict. "I regret that Brett died, but I don't know what I could have done differently."
Other Sigma Alpha Mu initiation rituals included directing pledges to eat raw onions covered in hot sauce, requiring them to drink large quantities of milk, and having them drink "gross" concoctions designed to cause the young men to vomit, according to trial testimony.
Aaron, clearly emotional after the verdict was read, declined comment. Since Brett Griffin's death he has graduated from law school.
"This was an unfortunate accident and no one's fault," said Aaron's lawyer, David Malatesta.