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Fatal Maryland Fire Starter Gets 37 Years; Fraternity Sued

Excerpt:

Wed Apr 25, 2007 10:07 am (PST)

The Diamondback
University of Maryland, College Park
April 25, 2007

Fraternity named in Scrocca lawsuit

By Ben Slivnick

A university fraternity’s national organization is facing accusations that
the chapter recklessly served alcohol at parties and used the substance to
recruit members, a factor that contributed to a student’s death, a federal
lawsuit filed last month shows.

The family of Michael Scrocca, a senior finance major who died when an
angry student set fire to his fraternity satellite house after a large
party in April 2005, and his roommate Stephen “Tex” Aarons, is suing his
former fraternity, Delta Tau Delta, accusing it of harboring a chaotic
environment at a house party the night Scrocca died. But the charges press
beyond Scrocca’s death, alleging that despite the fatal fire, Delta Tau
Delta continues to promote drinking as the cornerstone of a fraternity
whose motto is “committed to lives of excellence.”

The suit questions whether fraternities and sororities nationwide promote
community service and leadership, as many claim to do.

“Countless young people are killed and maimed every year as a direct result
of drinking at such fraternity parties,” the Scroccas’ lawsuit states. “In
addition … enormous property damage and other dire social costs and
consequences arise from the use of alcohol at such parties.”

The student who started the fire that killed Scrocca, former cell biology
and molecular genetics major Daniel Murray, 21, was sentenced to
37-and-a-half years in prison last month. Although he was not drinking at
the party the night of the fire, he was teased by party-goers there while
passing the Scrocca’s Princeton Avenue home on his way from a bar.

Scrocca’s family and Aarons, who was injured in the fire, charged that the
party’s drunken atmosphere led to the night’s tragedy.

In a complaint filed with the court, the plaintiff alleged the fraternity
is aware that alcohol is “virtually expected” at their parties despite the
fact that it “leads to conduct which is illegal, anti-social and
dangerous,” adjectives that echo the way a county judge described Murray’s
actions at his sentencing.

The documents also claim the fraternity has a financial incentive to
promote drinking to minors because it recruits freshmen and sophomores who
pay dues if they join the organization. The plaintiff accused the
fraternity of paying for alcohol the night Scrocca died.

Four kegs and several cases of malt liquor were found at the scene of the
fire, but the attorneys for the fraternity have denied in court documents
that the house party was an official fraternity function.

Attorneys on both sides did not return calls, and a court date has not yet
been set. A Delta Tau Delta spokesman and the parents of Scrocca declined
to comment. Another lawsuit, which names the College Park Fire Department
and Scrocca’s landlord, David Model, as defendants, is pending. A trial has
been set.

The case will most likely come down to whether the alcohol was purchased
with fraternity money or students’ own pocket cash, George Washington
University law professor Roger Trangsrud said.

The Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life two years ago launched an
investigation that concluded the chapter did not sponsor alcohol
consumption the night Scrocca died, OFSL Assistant Director of Advising and
Programming Matt Supple said. But he added that the office’s review was
brief and that they left the majority of the investigating to police.

Regardless, University of Maryland law professor Oscar Gray said according
to a legal precedent recognized in Maryland courts, bartenders are not held
responsible for the illegal actions that result from serving alcohol to
minors or those already drunk. The same logic would probably apply to the
fraternity, he said.

Still, he added that especially if the plaintiff proves the fraternity
served alcohol to minors, a judge might be inclined to accept exceptions to
this traditional liability precedent.

“The nastiness of the conduct really gets judges to a tipping point about
whether they’d be willing to try exceptions to the no-liability doctrine,”
he said. “If the fraternity had actual knowledge that it had minors in the
room, then it doesn’t deserve any kind of break.”

By Hank Nuwer

Hank Nuwer is the Indiana-based author of Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. He has written articles or columns on hazing for the Sunday Times of India, Toronto Globe & Mail, Harper's Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. His new book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press.

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