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86 fraternity brothers at Yale are named in tailgating lawsuit

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It was supposed to be just like every other annual Harvard-Yale game: a lively, fierce rivalry coupled with students and alumni cheering and tailgating.

But on Nov. 19, 2011, one tailgate festivity got out of hand: Brendan Ross, a member of the Yale University chapter of fraternity Sigma Phi Epsilon who was driving a rented U-Haul truck carrying beer kegs, struck and killed Nancy Barry, 30, of Salem, Mass., and injured Yale student Sarah Short and Harvard employee Elizabeth Dernbach.

Three weeks ago, on Dec. 30, lawyers for the plaintiffs filed two additional lawsuits, suing 86 current and former members of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity chapter at the university over the tailgate incident.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs, who sued Ross, Sigma Phi Epsilon, Yale, U-Haul and others seeking damages for Barry's death and Short's injuries in 2012, said they were forced to file new lawsuits because the fraternity's national headquarters in Richmond, Va., did not take responsibility for the Yale chapter's actions.

"This new lawsuit was created because they tried to be tricky and avoid liability in the case -- where in reality, the foolishness exposed many people to the lawsuit totally unnecessarily," said Joel Faxon, a lawyer representing Short, told the Los Angeles Times.

Paul Edwards, the lawyer for Barry's estate, echoed those complaints.

"We originally sued the national fraternity because we believe that the boys were acting as agents of the fraternity when the accident happened -- they had rented a truck and were bringing supplies to have a fraternity-sponsored party in the parking lot," Edwards told The Times. "But the national fraternity has tried to distance itself from the local chapter, saying the tailgate was not a fraternity-sanctioned event." 

The plaintiff's lawyers said they had no choice but to sue individual fraternity members because when the national fraternity "distanced itself," the Yale chapter became a "voluntary association" under Connecticut law.

"Under state law, a local fraternity isn't a corporation or business organization -- it's just a group of people," Faxon said.

In an email statement to The Times on Wednesday evening, Sigma Phi Epsilon Executive Director Brian Warren said, "Since learning of the incident, the national office has sought to be nothing but supportive of our undergraduates at Yale.

"SigEp maintains that the members of our fraternity who were not actively involved in the accident bear no responsibility for the tragic incident," he said.

On Thursday, the fraternity issued an official statement on its website stating that "contrary to recent media reports, Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity is defending and providing insurance coverage to members of its Yale chapter through its carrier," Liberty Surplus Insurance Corp.

The fraternity is "taking every possible action to procure coverage" for members, "as well as legal representation they need to be rightfully dismissed from this litigation."

Warren also noted in the release that he "traveled to New Haven the day of the accident to ensure members of our Yale chapter were receiving the support and assistance they needed."

A few months after the incident, Yale University officials announced tighter tailgating rules that banned kegs at athletic events or functions and oversized vehicles in university lots at athletic events, "unless driven by a pre-approved authorized vendor."

In an email statement to The Times on Wednesday, Yale University Press Secretary Tom Conroy said the school "doesn't have any comment" on the lawsuit filed.

Faxon said he thinks all four cases may be consolidated. He expects them to go to trial sometime in the spring or fall of next year.

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saba.hamedy@latimes.com

Twitter: @saba_h

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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