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Rider chapter president to testify against University. Insurance company says no to paying because of hazing exemption.

Ex-Rider student settles suit
Fraternity pledge died after alleged hazing
Saturday, April 12, 2008
BY KEVIN SHEA

The former president of the Rider University fraternity where a pledge drank a fatal amount of alcohol last year has settled a civil lawsuit with the pledge’s parents and will cooperate with them as they sue the university and others, a lawyer in the case said yesterday.

Michael Torney of Randolph was the president of the Phi Kappa Tau (PKT) fraternity when Gary DeVercelly Jr., 18, drank nearly a bottle of vodka during an initiation night in March 2007 that prosecutor’s allege was an illegal hazing event. He died in a Trenton hospital two days later.

DeVercelly’s parents, Julie and Gary DeVercelly Sr., sued Rider, the national PKT fraternity and four Rider PKT students, including Torney, for wrongful death in a suit filed in December.

Yesterday, Douglas Fierberg, the DeVercellys’ attorney, said Tor ney has settled with the DeVercel lys by agreeing to pay them $150,000 and assist them as they move forward in the case against the university and fraternity. The money will be paid from Torney family’s homeowners insurance policy, he said.

“He’s going to make himself available to the family to tell the truth,” Fierberg said. The information they hope to gain from Torney, Fierberg said, will implicate others, “including senior people at Rider.”

Fierberg said Torney’s settlement is about strategy. He and the DeVercellys seek to “get inside the actual fraternity” and talk to people with firsthand knowledge of events that led to DeVercelly’s death. “Which is clear was a death that could and should have been avoided,” Fierberg said.

Although he would not be specific, Fierberg said he expects the lawsuit to be amended in the near future to specifically name a person of “administrator” status at Rider.

Rider spokesman Daniel Hig gins said the university would not be speculating or responding in specifics about any legal maneuvers by Fierberg.

“We are confident that after full consideration of the facts and circumstances, Rider will be found to be without fault,” he said.

In a related development, Tor ney was recently added to a federal court civil action filed by an insurance company in the case.

Landmark American Insurance Co., which had insured the PKT fraternity, filed a claim in federal court in Trenton last month asking the court to relieve them from paying any claims in the case, in part because their policy has an exclu sion for hazing.

The Landmark claim had named the university and Adriano DiDonato, the fraternity’s house manager at the time of DeVercel ly’s death. Earlier this month, Landmark updated the claim to name Torney and also seeks to have his parents’ insurance company pay any claims before Landmark.

Meanwhile, Torney is the last remaining defendant in the criminal case of DeVercelly’s death. He awaits trial in Superior Court in Trenton on the charge of aggra vated hazing. The civil settlement has no impact on the case, his criminal defense attorney, Michael Rogers, said yesterday.

Torney was not at the party in the fraternity that night — he was upstairs studying for an exam — did not supply any alcohol for it and has always wanted to tell the truth that he had no involvement in the death whatsoever, Rogers said.

Prosecutors originally charged Torney, two other PKT members and two top Rider administrators with felonies. Cases against the administrators were dismissed and DiDonato of Princeton and Dominic Olsen of Kenilworth, the pledge master, entered a program for first-time offenders that erases their criminal records upon successful completion.

DiDonato and Olsen remain defendants in the DeVercelly wrongful death lawsuit, along with fraternity member Vincent Calogero, [who] was not charged criminally.

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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