WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — A University of Delaware fraternity pledge who died of alcohol poisoning was subject to hazing that violated university rules and state law, an attorney for his parents argued Tuesday as a trial began in their wrongful death lawsuit.
Brett Griffin, 18 of Kendall Park, N.J., died in November 2008 after drinking and passing out on a night when members of the Delta Lambda chapter of Sigma Alpha Mu celebrated the pairing of pledges with their "big brothers."
His parents, Timothy and Julie Griffin, sued the fraternity and several of its members in 2009. The fraternity and some members have since reached settlements in the case. The remaining defendants, former chapter president Jason Matthew Aaron and former pledge master Matthew A. Siracusa, deny any wrongdoing.
"Brett is not here because Brett chose to drink himself to death," said Aaron's lawyer, David Malatesta. "... He was given an opportunity to drink, and he took it."
Siracusa's attorney, Stephen Casarino, also said nobody forced Griffin to drink that night. Siracusa dropped by the party only briefly to say hello, then spent the rest of the night at a bar a block away, Casarino said.
"He did not supply any alcohol to anybody ... He didn't encourage anybody, including Brett, to drink that night."
But Doug Fierberg, an attorney for Griffin's parents, told jurors that Aaron and Siracusa planned and oversaw a pledge program that involved "significant hazing," including basement rituals in which pledges donned "play clothes" and were pressured to consume various foods and beverages, including milk, until they vomited.
In a text message to a friend a day or two before he died, Griffin said he was "going mentally insane" because of the pledge process, according to Fierberg.
"I'm going to get way too drunk tonight," Griffin allegedly wrote in another text on the day of the party.
At the time, according to former UD official Matthew Lenno, the Delta Lambda chapter was prohibited from having parties or engaging in other social activities. It had been charged two months earlier with violating rules regarding fraternities, including rules regarding alcohol, and agreed to pay a $3,000 fine. Lenno, now director of fraternity and sorority life at Towson University in Maryland, previously held several jobs working with students at UD, where he regularly lectured fraternity leaders and pledges about hazing and alcohol use.
Lenno said fraternity pledges often face peer pressure to drink, and that "big-little" night is one of three "deadly nights" where fraternity members are likely to drink heavily. The others are induction, or bid night, and initiation night.
In addition to being introduced to his big brother, Griffin was told on the night he died that their "family drink" was Southern Comfort, said Fierberg.
"Take that whole bottle to your face, Pass out. Make a memory," Aaron had advised pledges, according to Fierberg.
Fierberg said Griffin started drinking around 9:30 p.m. By midnight, he was among half a dozen pledges taken upstairs at a frat house to recover from drunken stupors. Griffin was propped on his side with pillows, unable to talk or move, with a trash can near his head in case he vomited.
Almost three hours later, Fierberg said, Griffin's new big brother, Michael Bassett, received a text message: "Your little (brother) is foaming at the mouth."
But a 911 call was not made until almost 10 minutes later, shortly before 3 a.m.
Susan Owens, an emergency room physician employed by George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C, testified that Griffin likely would have survived with no permanent injuries had the 911 call been made by 1:30 a.m.
Instead, Griffin was pronounced dead at 3:39 a.m. According to court records, he had a blood-alcohol level of .341 when he died, more than four times the threshold for drunken driving.
Following Griffin's death, the fraternity was charged by state prosecutors with one count of hazing, a misdemeanor, and fined $50,000.
The university also suspended the local chapter until earlier this year.