$3.4 million settlement reached in Penn frat party death

Twenty-year-old tripped and fell over stair railing, landing on his head

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The family of a 20-year-old college student who died after drunkenly falling 30 feet over a railing at a fraternity house on the University of Pennsylvania's campus has settled with the fraternity and a beer distributor for nearly $3.4 million.

The plaintiffs also reached a confidential settlement with the university.

According to the complaint in Crozier v. University of Pennsylvania, Matthew Crozier, who was not a Penn student, attended a New Year's Eve party at the house of Phi Kappa Sigma on the university's campus.

Around 3 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2011, Mr. Crozier was intoxicated and walking up the stairs of the fraternity house to the second floor when he tripped and fell over the railing, landing on his head and suffering a traumatic brain injury, according to the complaint. He was taken to the Neuro Trauma Surgical Intensive Care Unit of the University of Pennsylvania Hospital and died four days later, the complaint said.

His father, David Crozier, as administrator of his son's estate, filed a wrongful death and survival action in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas in May 2011. The complaint alleged that the railings in the house were defectively low and that Phi Kappa Sigma and the university had failed to ensure that the railings were a safe height.

According to the complaint, a former Penn student fell to his death down a flight of steps at another fraternity house in March 1999 because of defectively low railings and another student was injured at a third fraternity house in September 2004 when he fell over the second-floor banister.

"Accordingly, defendants knew that there were serious issues about the way UPenn fraternity houses were maintained, particularly with regard to steps and railings," the complaint said.

In their answer to the complaint, defendants Phi Kappa Sigma International Fraternity Inc. and the Alpha chapter of Phi Kappa Sigma specifically denied that the railings in the house where Matthew Crozier fell were deficient and alleged that his death was the result of his own negligence.

The university, meanwhile, argued in its motion for summary judgment that it could not be held accountable for the condition of Phi Kappa Sigma's railings because the university neither owns nor controls the property.

The complaint also alleged that the university and the fraternity failed to shut down the New Year's Eve party despite the fact that underage drinking was taking place.

The fraternity defendants maintained that they did not sanction, finance or even know about the party.

Hours before Matthew Crozier's death, a fire alarm went off in the frat house and members of the university Police Department as well as fire personnel evacuated the house, but did not break up the party, according to the complaint.

But the university maintained in its motion for summary judgment that the Phi Kappa Sigma party was a private event that took place on campus while the school was closed for winter break.

"Penn did not furnish, agree to furnish or promote furnishing of alcohol to Crozier, and Penn did not actually furnish, agree to furnish or promote furnishing of alcohol to a minor," Penn said in its motion for summary judgment.

Penn said in its motion that while its campus police officers observed cups and beer cans in the house while responding to the fire alarm, they had no reason to suspect underage drinking.

"No matter what Penn's campus police would have done when they arrived at the Phi Kappa Sigma house to investigate the fire alarm, Crozier had already illegally purchased beer prior to the party, carried a fake ID and had become, in his own words, 'wasted,'" the university said in its motion, quoting a text message from Mr. Crozier's cell phone.

The complaint further alleged that defendant Suds Beer Store sold Mr. Crozier two six-packs of beer earlier in the day on Dec. 31 and "had policies and practices in effect not to require and/or request identification from underage patrons and to sell such patrons alcoholic beverages in violation of the Pennsylvania Liquor Laws."

But Suds, in its preliminary objections, argued that the plaintiffs' only viable claim against the store was for a violation of the state's Dram Shop Act for allegedly selling alcohol to a minor.

Ultimately, according to the plaintiffs' attorneys, Robert J. Mongeluzzi and Ara R. Avrigian of Saltz Mongeluzzi Barrett & Bendesky in Philadelphia, Phi Kappa Sigma agreed to settle for $3 million and Suds agreed to settle for $375,000.

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Zack Needles: zneedles@alm.com or 215-557-2493. To read more articles like this, visit www.thelegalintelligencer.com.


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