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Piazzas File Lawsuit Against 28 Former Fraternity Brothers, Reach Settlement With Penn State

Days before the second anniversary of their son Timothy’s death following a pledge initiation at a now-banned Penn State fraternity, Jim and Evelyn Piazza have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against 28 former Beta Theta Pi members and reached an undisclosed settlement with the university.

The 102-page federal lawsuit was filed late Thursday in the U.S. Middle District Court of Pennsylvania. In addition to the former fraternity brothers, the suit also names as a defendant St. Moritz Security Systems, Inc, the security firm formerly used by Penn State’s Interfraternity Council to act as “party checkers” to ensure gatherings were following rules, including those involving alcohol.

“This lawsuit filing, and announcement of our sweeping out-of-court settlement with the university, marks two milestone developments in this long and difficult journey of Jim and Evelyn Piazza as they fight for the full measure of justice – and permanent Greek life reforms – in memory of their son following his preventable death,” Piazza family attorney Tom Kline said in a press release. 

The Piazzas previously reached a settlement with the Beta Theta Pi organization in September.

Kline said on Friday the lawsuit against individuals, which seeks at least $75,000, “is necessary to avert future tragedies.”

“With the assistance of recovered fraternity house interior surveillance video, and text messages amongst the defendants, we intend to hold all those responsible for Tim’s death fully accountable,” he said. “Only through the civil justice process can these objectives be accomplished.”

Among those named in the complaint are fraternity members still facing criminal charges, some who have already pleaded guilty to a variety of misdemeanor charges, including hazing, and some who have not been criminally charged at all.

The complaint details at length each of their roles before, on and after the night of Feb. 2, 2017, when 14 pledges, including the 19-year-old sophomore Piazza, reported to the Beta Theta Pi house on Burrowes Road for an alcohol-fueled bid acceptance night. As previously laid out in numerous criminal court proceedings, pledges were put through the “gauntlet,” a series of drinking stations where they were encouraged to rapidly consume beer, liquor, and wine. Fraternity members continued to ply them with alcohol at a basement party that followed.

Investigators said they determined Piazza was given 18 alcoholic drinks in 82 minutes before he fell headfirst down the basement stairs. He fell multiple times throughout the night as his condition worsened, but no one called for help until the following morning, nearly 12 hours after his first fall.

“For more than 11 hours after his fall, Timothy Piazza endured horrible pain and suffering, which was documented by closed-circuit cameras,” the lawsuit states. “Video from that night shows Timothy Piazza writhing and deteriorating. Despite knowing the serious nature of Timothy Piazza’s fall, and despite knowing that some fraternity members wanted Piazza to receive professional medical care, the Fraternity Defendants did not seek medical care for him until it was too late. Upon realizing the grave consequences of their conduct, the Fraternity Defendants unsuccessfully sought to conceal evidence of their hazing.”

Piazza died on Feb. 4, 2017 as a result of non-recoverable brain injuries, head trauma and massive internal bleeding caused by a shattered spleen.

The complaint alleges multiple counts of negligence and battery, as well as one count of intentional infliction of emotional distress. St. Moritz is being sued for negligence for allegedly failing to enforce rules and policies related to hazing and serving alcohol to minors, as well as failing to report violations.

In addition to St. Moritz, the complaint names former president Brendan Young, pledgemaster Daniel Casey and house manager Braxton Becker, each of whom is still awaiting trial in Centre County court. Becker is accused of deleting video, which was later recovered by FBI experts, and lying about it to investigators. Young and Casey face a multitude of misdemeanor charges including hazing,reckless endangerment and furnishing alcohol to minors

Others named in the suit are Michael Bonatucci, Ryan Burke, Jerry Coyne, Gary DiBileo, Jr., Joseph Ems, Casey Funk, Edward James Gilmartin, Craig Heimer, Jonathan Kanzler, Lars Kenyon, Nicholas Kubera, Joshua Kurczewski, Jonathan Martines, Adam Mengden, Joshua Monckton, Jonah Neuman, Aidan O’Brien, Donald Prior, Matthew Reinmund, Lucas Rockwell, Joseph Sala, Michael Angelo Schiavone, Bohan Song, Luke Visser, and Parker Yochim  

Coyne, Funk, Martines, Mengden, Monckton, Reinmund and Rockwell have not been charged with crimes. Heimer, Gilmartin, Kenyon and Yochim were accepted into ARD programs and the rest have pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges.

Kline said that the Piazzas “will be spending this weekend in private remembrance of their son, and respectfully ask that their privacy be respected.”

PENN STATE SETTLEMENT

Monetary terms of the Piazzas settlement with Penn State were not disclosed. Both parties, however, released details of an agreement formalizing university initiatives and future commitments to fraternity and sorority reform.

Following Piazza’s death, the university implemented sweeping changes among Greek-letter organizations with numerous new requirements and rules related to alcohol, education and reporting.  Penn State officials also pledged to take the lead nationally on fraternity reform efforts, and last week the university announced the establishment of the Timothy J. Piazza Center for Fraternity and Sorority Research and Reform.

The new agreement, signed on Jan. 25, commits the university to measures for increased accountability and safety in Greek-life organizations, alcohol control, bystander intervention education, transparency about violations and sanctions and culture change among fraternities and sororities. 

It also reiterates the permanent ban of Beta Theta Pi at Penn State and bars recognition of organizations that are “merely a reconstitution, in some form, of an organization that has lost University recognition.”

Kline said the settlement was a “direct outgrowth of the determined dedication by Jim and Evelyn Piazza to the cause of preventing hazing injury and death in Greek life.”

university statement on Friday said the agreement “reflects our mutual commitment to promoting positive change,” and reinforces expectations for Greek-life organizations. 

“This agreement also identifies areas where we together believe more advancements in student safety efforts can be accomplished and promising collaborations can be formed with critical partners, such as alumni, parents, national organizations and others – all of whom are central to creating lasting change,” the statement said.

Penn State officials say that the collective efforts over the past two years has resulted in “notable initial progress,” including reductions in alcohol-related emergency room visits and crimes, fewer noise violations in fraternity neighborhoods, and improved GPAs among Greek-life members.

“This new agreement identifies possible future actions that Greek-life chapters can take that will be encouraged and supported by the university,” the statement said. “These measures provide an opportunity for Penn State to continue to lead the nation in Greek-life reforms that identify promising approaches to building and sustaining a strong community of purpose.”

Kline said the Piazzas “acknowledge and endorse” Penn State’s efforts on campus and nationally, “especially the significant work of President Eric Barron,” to reform fraternity and sorority life.

The Piazzas, meanwhile, have been a prominent voice locally and nationally for fraternity and sorority reform. That included working with state Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, of Benner Township, to develop Pennsylvania’s Timothy Piazza Antihazing Law, which was passed last year to toughen criminal penalties for hazing and implement new requirements for educational institutions and organizations. Penn State leadership also supported the measure.

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About the Author

Geoff Rushton (StateCollege.com)

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for StateCollege.com. Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.

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