By Harriet McLeod
CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) - The parents of a 19-year-old Clemson University student who died last year after falling from a highway bridge during a pre-dawn fraternity run sued the university, the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity and three of its members for $50 million on Monday.
Tucker Hipps' body was found by police last September beneath a highway bridge over a lake near the Clemson, South Carolina campus when he didn't return from the run with other fraternity pledges.
The two civil suits, which seek $25 million each, allege that Hipps died as a result of a confrontation with a fraternity member over breakfast food he was told to bring that morning.
Hipps sent a text message that he didn't have enough money for the order of "30 McDonald's biscuits, 30 McDonald's hash browns and two gallons of chocolate milk," but a fraternity brother confronted him on the bridge over the order, court records show.
Hipps then went over the railing of the bridge into shallow water in Lake Hartwell head first, the lawsuits said, adding that a fraternity member shone a flashlight into the dark water below but took no further action to locate the student.
Clemson University, Sigma Phi Epsilon, and the fraternity members could not be immediately reached for comment. It was not clear whether the defendants had retained attorneys.
A spokeswoman for the university told the Greenville News that the school was aware of the legal action, but would not comment on pending litigation.
The suits said the fraternity had a long tradition of "requiring, pressuring, encouraging and forcing" pledge members to jump off bridges over the lake and swim to shore.
Hipps was not under the influence of any substances, according to a toxicology report. He died of blunt force trauma from a head-first fall onto rocks in shallow water, a coroner's report showed.
The lawsuits contend his death was caused by the gross negligence and recklessness of the defendants, including two other fraternity members who had organized the run.
Hipps' death sparked rampant speculation at the time by students on social media that hazing was involved, but police said a preliminary investigation did not indicate a role for hazing.
The Oconee County Sheriff's Office said this month its case remained open.
The university suspended all activities of its 24 fraternities shortly after Hipps' body was found.
(Editing by Curtis Skinner)