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Family sues Indiana college over teen's alcohol death

September 23, 2010

A lawsuit against an Indiana college claims that the school shares blame for an 18-year-old freshman's death from alcohol poisoning after a fraternity house party because of its lax attitude toward underaged drinking and hazing.

The parents of Johnny Smith of Tucson, Ariz., filed the wrongful death lawsuit in a Montgomery County court against Wabash College. Smith was found dead at the Delta Tau Delta house in October 2008, and the lawsuit said tests determined he had a blood-alcohol level of nearly 0.40 percent.

The lawsuit claims the fraternity provided beer and alcohol to Smith and other minors during a Saturday night party of homecoming weekend and required Smith to drink shots of hard alcohol with older fraternity members. The members didn't then seek medical care for him after he suffered facial injuries in falling down a stairwell and then had to be carried to an upstairs room to sleep, the lawsuit said.

The all-male liberal arts college shared responsibility, the lawsuit said, because it owns the fraternity house.

Wabash spokesman James Amidon declined Thursday to comment on specifics of the lawsuit.

The school issued a statement saying "we believe in the strength of our Gentlemen's Rule — that a student is expected to conduct himself as a gentleman and a responsible citizen at all times — and we remain steadfast in our believe in personal responsibility."

Stephen Wagner, an attorney for Stacy and Robert Smith, said Wabash had a dangerous culture of underaged drinking and that its "Gentlemen's Rule" was vague and ineffective.

"For 18 year olds away from home for the first time, susceptible not only to peer pressure but also hazing from older fraternity brothers, the Gentlemen's Rule is not safeguard at all," Wagner said.

Smith's death was the second in about a year at the 900-student school in which alcohol might have played a part. A 19-year-old Wabash freshman died in October 2007 when he slipped and fell from a roof at the campus in Crawfordsville, about 40 miles northwest of Indianapolis. Tests showed he had been drinking.

The Smith family's lawsuit seeks unspecified damages from the college and the fraternity.

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