• March 29, 2013

As the youngest contributor to this blog, who graduated from college not so long ago, I think it’s safe to assume that, among my fellow Minnesota Litigator colleagues, I’m the most recent attendee of a fraternity party (hopefully). For the unfamiliar, these parties follow a standard formula: a fraternity house, cheap and abundant liquor (see the Beast), hundreds of your closest friends, and loud music. Combine these things together and you have a recipe for poor decision-making, over-intoxication, and needless violence.

So what happens when there’s a fight at the party and an invitee is injured or is a victim of a crime? Is the fraternity liable and does it owe a duty of care to the invitees from harm if the fraternity house is opened to the public? The Minnesota Court of Appeals recently decided a case involving a party thrown by the brothers of Delta Tau Delta, Beta Eta Chapter, at the University of Minnesota and their unruly guests.

For the record, I was never really a big fan of frat parties.

On July 16, 2006, then-20 year old Anthony Whebbe attended a fraternity party hosted by DTD. The party was big (50-400 guests), big enough that the fraternity had to register it with the University and have some security and sober monitors to maintain order. Despite being underage, over the course of the night Whebbe drank “quite a bit.” At some point during the party, a group of young men (see bros) were kicked out of the party for “grabbing girls,” “being jerks to people,” and “rapping” (I’m assuming rapping poorly). Whebbe accompanied a friend and approached the group outside of DTD when some unidentified person hit Whebbe causing him to fall back and hit the pavement.

Whebbe sued the fraternity on a negligence theory, alleging that the fraternity owed him a duty of care as an invitee to the fraternity party. The district court granted the fraternity’s motion for summary judgment, and on appeal, the court of appeals affirmed. 

The case rested on whether the fraternity owed Whebbe a duty of care because the fraternity created a “special relationship” obligating the fraternity to give aid or protect another from harm caused by a third party’s conduct (like innkeeper and guest or common carrier and passenger). Whebbe argued that the special relationship was created when the fraternity opened the house up for the public. The court rejected Whebbe’s theory and upheld the district court’s grant of summary judgment relying primarily on Rasivong v. Lakewood Community College:

A landowner has no duty . . . to protect an entrant on its land from a third party’s criminal activities because a criminal act committed by an unknown person ‘is not an activity of the owner and does not constitute a condition of the land.’” 504 N.W.2d 778, 783-784 (Minn. App. 1993), review denied (Minn. Oct. 19, 1993) (quoting Pietila v. Congdon, 362 N.W.2d 328, 333 (Minn. 1985)).

After reading through this decision, I started to think about the high school football players who were recently convicted of sexually assaulting a girl at a party in Steubenville, Ohio. Given this court’s decision and the court in Rasivong, and changing a few of the facts from that case, I wonder if a civil negligence suit against the fraternity would fail if someone was sexually assaulted at a fraternity party? Would that answer change if a fraternity member sexually assaulted the person? My initial thought is under Rasivong, the fraternity would not be liable under the first circumstance, but may be liable under the second. I’d love to hear your opinions and analyses in the Comments section.

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