You are here: Home > Iowa Cases > Civil Liabilities
- by Erika Eckley
October 4, 2012
At the heart of every negligent tort case are the elements of duty, breach, causation and damages. The elements are like links in a chain – each must be established for a plaintiff to prevail. In other words, the plaintiff must prove all four elements or his claim with fail. This case is an illustration of the necessity of establishing all four elements to prevail on a negligent tort claim.
In August 2008, the young, under-aged plaintiff pledged his way into an Iowa State fraternity. Upon admission into the organization, he was given a place to live. He selected a bunk-bed next to a third story window. He was told the window had to remain open at all times. But, before bunking down on a warm September night, the plaintiff participated in many activities to establish his new role as a big man on campus.
First, he attended an exciting college football game in which his beloved Cyclones defeated the Kent State Golden Eagles 48-28. With good feelings all around, the plaintiff asked his fraternity brother (one of the defendants) to purchase for him some tasty, adult beverages. The plaintiff provided the cash, and the fraternity brother provided the age requirement to complete the purchase. Despite their fraternal relations, no alcohol was provided by or consumed in the fraternity house due to specific policies prohibiting the use of alcohol at fraternity functions.
The plaintiff then made his way to a party hosted by another fraternity brother (another defendant) at his shared apartment. The plaintiff, being a gentleman, brought his own refreshments to quench his thirst and that of others. The plaintiff played drinking games with some non-memorable individuals. At one time, the plaintiff helped himself to beer in the host’s refrigerator, but it is not known who gave him permission to snag a couple cold ones. He also accepted some alcohol provided by “some girls.” At no time did any the host provide alcohol to the plaintiff nor was he required to drink while attending the party.
After several hours of imbibing and socializing, the plaintiff returned to the fraternity house, microwaved some food, and went to bed. Between 3:00 and 4:00 a.m. that morning, the plaintiff got out of bed and fell out the window. He suffered some injuries as a result of his three-story fall, but had no memories of the experience. The not-so-lucky plaintiff had previously suffered a brain injury, which caused him to periodically sleepwalk regardless of his alcohol consumption, and he did not believe alcohol was the cause of his fall. Despite this, he sued the party’s host, his frat brother, and his fraternity for negligence in causing his injury.
The three defendants all moved for summary judgment to dismiss the claims against them for failing to prove evidence of negligence. The district court granted summary judgment to each of the defendants.
The court held that the fraternity owed no duty to the plaintiff because he was a member of the fraternity and exercised control over the premises, the injury was not foreseeable, and even if fraternity knew about the window, the plaintiff slept right next to it and also knew of its existence. There was also no evidence the fraternity furnished any alcohol to the plaintiff and did not owe a duty to control the conduct of the other named defendants to act for the plaintiff’s protection.
The court granted summary judgment to the alcohol purchasing fraternity brother because the plaintiff lacked any evidence that his underage consumption of alcohol was the cause of his injuries. Finally, the claim against the host was dismissed because he was not a very gracious host as there was no evidence he affirmatively delivered alcohol to the plaintiff. Without providing the alcohol to the under-age plaintiff, no social host liability existed.
The plaintiff appealed, but did not succeed. The Court of Appeals quickly schooled the plaintiff on the basic requirements for winning his case and why his case did not pass. The undisputed evidence was that the only attributable cause of plaintiff’s fall was the plaintiff’s known sleep-walking problem and alcohol consumption was not even a contributing factor in the fall. Further, the plaintiff slept next to it, and the existence of the open window was obvious. The size of the window, however, was not such that a person could fall out; the person would have slept walked out the window.
The fraternity members had the day-to-day control of the fraternity house and the plaintiff was a member of the fraternity, so he was, in essence, suing himself for his injuries. There was no evidence of any cause for the fall besides the sleep-walking, so there could be no proof of negligence against the fraternity brother. Also, there was no social host liability against the host of the party because merely granting permission to have a party in which minors consume alcohol is not enough for liability to attach. The host must affirmatively deliver alcohol to the plaintiff.
The case boils down to a simple lesson. In order to establish liability against others for personal injuries, it is vital that evidence of all four elements of negligence exist. In this case, the plaintiff had a prior, known condition that was the only attributable cause of his injury. Even though others may have engaged in ill-advised conduct, this alone does not establish liability. The conduct must be the cause of the plaintiff’s injury, otherwise it’s just plain college shenanigans. Stebens v. Farmhouse Fraternity, No. 2-782 (Iowa Ct. App. Oct. 3, 2012)