The family of Maxwell Gruver, an LSU student who died in a Phi Delta Theta hazing incident last year, filed a federal lawsuit Thursday, saying the school and fraternity knew for years that pledges were being abused and that the 18-year-old's death could have been avoided if the institutions had taken steps against "masculine rites of passage."
The wrongful death lawsuit, which seeks $25 million in damages, names the university, a housing corporation, the fraternity and more than a dozen of its members. It cites a portion of federal law that makes sex discrimination illegal.
Gruver, of Roswell, Georgia, died from alcohol poisoning and aspiration last Sept. 14, a day after participating in a "Bible study" hazing ritual. Investigators say he was forced to drink 190 proof liquor after he incorrectly answered questions about the fraternity. Attorneys allege in the lawsuit that fraternity members instructed pledges to take a Gruver, who was unresponsive, to the hospital the day after the "Bible study" and to lie about finding him inside the fraternity house.
"Max’s parents allege the hazing ritual that caused his death would never have taken place if LSU or Phi Delta Theta had responded appropriately to numerous complaints of hazing at Phi Delta Theta’s chapter at LSU in the years before Max’s death," according to a statement released Thursday on behalf of the family. "The Gruver family alleges in their lawsuit that LSU’s and Phi Delta Theta’s failure to end the tradition of hazing at the chapter was driven by a broken model of self-governance and outdated gender stereotypes about young men engaging in masculine rites of passage — in direct violation of Title IX’s prohibition of sex discrimination."
Attorneys argue in the lawsuit that LSU, in printed material and television advertising, misleads students about the value of Greek Life by promoting it as a "valuable educational opportunity" while simultaneously not publicizing or reporting on incidents of hazing and misconduct.
"The reality at LSU is that male students like Max face the risk of serious injury and death when they seek educational benefits and opportunities offered through LSU's Greek letter fraternity system, and the risk to male students at LSU is likely far worse than the television portrayals," according to the lawsuit.
Attorneys point to prior instances of male-only fraternities violating university policies, including that only four of the university's 27 fraternity's "were without risk-management violations in the five years preceding Max's death," a statistic The Advocate has reported previously reported. Within those same five years, "there were at least 24 fraternity hazing investigations by LSU, with 20 findings of policy violations," according to the lawsuit.
The attorneys allege that three of those chapters received a three-year suspension, but none of them had their charters permanently revoked. They allege female-only sororities receive harsher and longer sanctions for hazing than their male-only counterparts, which they believe violates Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. They claim LSU "minimizes the hazing of males as 'boys being boys.'"
LSU and the national fraternity failed to make any substantial change to the chapter's recruitment and pledging processes, but rather "continued to promote and condone a structure of self-management by undergraduate fraternity members," the attorneys argue.
"LSU and Phi Delt knew dangerous hazing was taking place at Phi Delt’s LSU chapter for years, yet they continued to allow the chapter and its members to investigate and police themselves," Max Gruver's parents, Stephen and Rae Ann Gruver, said in a statement. "This inaction allowed dangerous hazing traditions at the chapter to persist. We’ve lost Max as result of those hazing traditions, and his loss has created a devastating impact."
Just weeks before Gruver's death, a "concerned parent" e-mailed the Office of Greek Life at LSU on Aug. 21, 2017, to report that pledges at another fraternity, Sigma Nu, were forced to drink until everyone vomited, according to the lawsuit. The parent, who identified themselves as a parent of another fraternity's pledge, said they were angry and concerned about the drinking.
"I am very angry that this has occurred and I know that it will likely continue," the parent wrote, according to the lawsuit. "I do not want to hear that someone's son is dead due to alcohol poisoning, and I expect someone to investigate this incident ASAP and put an end to hazing at LSU."
The lawyers write that LSU closed its investigation into that complaint, citing insufficient information. Gruver died less than 10 days after the case was closed.
The attorneys allege Gruver was specifically targeted during the "Bible study" because he had previously been late to activities and because he complained to his pledge master that another fraternity member had forced him to buy him $60 in cigarettes and drive the fraternity member and his two friends around.
LSU responded to the lawsuit on Thursday evening through spokesman Ernie Ballard, saying the university has developed new policies since Gruver's death.
"We are now implementing those changes and are working to educate each and every one of our Greek leaders, Greek students and others involved in student organizations," Ballard said. "LSU supported the Gruvers' efforts to criminalize hazing and ensure that there were harsher penalties for hazing in Louisiana. Our Greek Life Task Force and Implementation Committee have put new measures in place for the start of the fall semester."
The Phi Delta Theta national organization responded to the lawsuit on Thursday with a statement on the organization's website, calling Gruver's death a "very tragic situation that should have never happened."
"We strongly advocate that those found to be involved and in violation of our risk management policies will be held accountable for their individual actions and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," the statement reads. "We believe in the merits of a college fraternity but recognize the need for meaningful reform. ... Throughout our history, we have endorsed and promoted initiatives to battle the societal issue of hazing."
The Gruver family attorneys are Douglas Fierberg and Jonathon Fazzola of The Fierberg National Law Group, PLLC and Donald Cazayoux Jr. and J. Lane Ewing Jr. of Cazayoux Ewing Law Firm.
They name 10 "John Doe" defendants in the lawsuit, in addition to eight current and former members of the fraternity.
Four ex-LSU students are accused in the Gruver case. Matthew Naquin is charged with negligent homicide, while Sean Paul Gott, Ryan Isto and Patrick Forde are charged with misdemeanor hazing. Gott and Isto are scheduled to stand trial Dec. 4. Forde and Naquin do not currently have a trial date.