A jury awarded $6.1 million to the family of an 18-year-old Louisiana State University student who died after being hazed by members of a fraternity.
The verdict, which was reached last week, ended a yearslong civil trial over the 2017 death of Max Gruver that originally involved more than a dozen defendants, including the university and the fraternity. Almost all of them reached settlements with the family before the case went to trial, including the former fraternity member who the jury found had the majority of responsibility for Gruver's death, meaning the $6.1 million figure is largely symbolic.
But the verdict underlined that juries can levy serious consequences against students involved in hazing, said his parents, who have started a foundation to create laws and education to end the practice.
“The verdict sends a message about how serious juries take hazing," Stephen and Rae Ann Gruver said in a statement to BuzzFeed News through their lawyer. "And rightfully so. Our son’s death was senseless and preventable, and the jury’s award reflects how much damage his loss has caused our family. Although the verdict does not – and cannot ever – repair that loss, it is another important step in our mission to end hazing."
In September 2017, Gruver, an 18-year-old first-year student at Louisiana State University, died from acute alcohol intoxication. According to reports, Gruver and other pledges had to chug alcohol if they answered trivia questions wrong. He was taken to the hospital from the Phi Delta Theta house after fraternity members found him lying facedown on the couch. He had a blood alcohol level of .495, which is six times the legal limit to drive.
According to court documents from last week, Gruver's family was awarded $100,000 for the pain and suffering he might have experienced from the incident up until his death. The family was also awarded $6 million for the suffering caused by Gruver's death.
In 2018, a grand jury in Baton Rouge indicted four men for Gruver's death. Matthew Naquin was indicted on negligent homicide and later convicted. Sean-Paul Gott and Ryan Isto pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of hazing, and the same charge was later dropped against Patrick Forde. The jury decided last week that Naquin was 80% responsible for Gruver's death, the other men were 2% responsible, and that Gruver himself was 0% responsible.
"We are grateful that the jury understood that Max and his pledge brothers had no real choice and were not at fault for the hell they had to endure," his parents said. "And, significantly, through its verdict, the jury put to rest the notion that merely being a bystander to hazing absolves a fraternity member of responsibility. If you see something, step up, make a difference, call 911, and save a life.”
Don Cazayoux, the family's attorney, told the Associated Press that the verdict boosts the family's anti-hazing message.
“The first message is, don’t do it because you could hurt someone, you could kill someone,” Cazayoux said. The legal exposure, he said, is something parents should warn their college-bound children about.
Jonathon Fazzola, another lawyer representing Gruver's family, told the New York Times that the family was paid a "significant sum" by other defendants, like Louisiana State University and Phi Delta Theta. Louisiana State University and Phi Delta Theta did not immediately respond to BuzzFeed News' requests for comment.
In 2018, Louisiana passed the Max Gruver Act, which makes committing hazing a felony.