Factual background of the case
Sigma Alpha Epsilon is a national fraternal organization with more than 13,000 members and chapters at universities and colleges across the nation. The organization has bylaws that local chapters are supposed to follow, but each local chapter independently manages its own affairs and has its own bylaws. The California Gamma chapter was located at the University of Southern California. It had committed multiple violations in the past and occasionally held parties on Thursdays in violation of the organization’s rule that there should be no parties on Monday through Thursday.
Carson Barenborg was a 19-year-old woman who attended several fraternity parties at USC on Oct. 10, 2013, which was a Thursday. Barenborg did not attend USC but was a student at a different nearby university. After going to several other parties with her friends, Barenborg went to the party at the California Gamma chapter’s fraternity house. She had consumed between five and seven alcoholic drinks and had taken some cocaine prior to her arrival. Someone had set up a wooden platform, and Barenborg decided to climb up on it and dance. The platform was about six to seven feet off the ground. Another partygoer knocked her off of the platform, and she suffered serious injuries.
The California Gamma chapter was disciplined by the national organization following the incident. The chapter was placed under the supervision of an alumni commission and was prohibited from possessing alcohol. Later, it violated the ban on alcohol, and its charter was suspended.
Barenborg filed a lawsuit against USC, the national Sigma Alpha Epsilon organization, and others for a negligence cause of action. Sigma Alpha Epsilon filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that it did not owe Barenborg a duty of care and could not be vicariously liable for the actions of the California Gamma chapter to pay for her injuries and resulting damages. The Los Angeles Superior Court granted the motion for summary judgment, finding that Sigma Alpha Epsilon was not vicariously liable. Barenborg filed an appeal of the court’s ruling.
Issue: Whether a national fraternal organization is vicariously liable for the conduct of individual chapters?
The appeals court looked at whether a national fraternal organization could be vicariously liable for the actions taken by members of its individual chapters. While other states had previously addressed this question, California courts had not. The plaintiff argued that the national organization owed her a duty of care because it had a special relationship with the chapter; it had a special relationship with the plaintiff; and it voluntarily assumed the duty of care through a negligent undertaking.
Rules: 1) A duty to control may exist when there is a special relationship between the defendant and a foreseeably dangerous person such that the defendant can control the dangerous person; 2) The owners and possessors of property have a special relationship with invitees who are on the property; and 3) Defendants who provide services to a person may owe him or her a duty of care.
In California, a duty of care may exist when there is a special relationship between defendants and others who they have the ability to control in some cases. For example, an employer may be vicariously liable for the actions of its employees while they are working. Property owners and possessors also have special relationships with invitees on their property that may give rise to liability. Finally, defendants who undertake to provide services to people may be liable to them or others if they did so in a negligent manner.
The court first looked at whether there was a special relationship between Sigma Alpha Epsilon and the California Gamma chapter at USC. The court first noted that while California had not previously ruled on whether a national fraternity organization could be liable for the actions of individual chapters, other states had. Most states have ruled that national fraternity organizations are not vicariously liable for the actions of individual chapters because a special relationship does not exist.
A special relationship exists when an organization has the ability to monitor the daily activities of a chapter. The plaintiff argued that Sigma Alpha Epsilon did have the ability to monitor the day-to-day activities of the California Gamma Chapter and pointed to the organization’s fraternity laws and its ability to discipline. However, the court found that having the ability to discipline a chapter does not give the organization the ability to monitor its daily activities. This meant that a special relationship between the defendant and the California Gamma chapter did not exist.
The court then looked at whether a special relationship existed between Sigma Alpha Epsilon and Barenborg. The court noted that Sigma Alpha Epsilon did not own the fraternity house and was not in possession of it. The plaintiff argued that the national organization still controlled the property because it had social rules and because it arranged for individual chapters to purchase premises liability insurance. The court looked at its decision in University of Southern California v. Superior Court of Los Angeles, 30 Cal.App.5th 429 (2018). That was the case in which USC had been sued by Barenborg for the same incident. The court in that case found that a special relationship did not exist between USC and Barenborg and that the university did not have posession of, ownership of, or control over the off-campus fraternity house. In that case, Barenborg had used a similar argument, and the court had rejected it. The court found that the same reasoning applied to Sigma Alpha Epsilon and Barenborg and that it did not have a special relationship with her. Finally, the court found that the doctrine of negligent undertaking simply did not apply to the facts of what happened in Barenborg’s case.
The court ruled that there was no special relationship between Sigma Alpha Epsilon and California Gamma or between the national organization and Barenborg. It affirmed the ruling of the Superior Court, which meant that the case would be dismissed.
Talk to an experienced personal injury attorney in Los Angeles
If you have been injured while you were visiting the property of another individual or entity, you may have legal rights. However, there are some situations in which certain parties may not hold liability for your injuries. It is important to correctly identify the appropriate parties to name as defendants to lawsuits. An experienced personal injury lawyer in Los Angeles may review the facts of what happened in your case and offer an honest evaluation of whether you have grounds to file a personal injury lawsuit. If the lawyer agrees to accept representation, he or she may work to correctly identify the defendants who should be named in the lawsuit and those that likely do not hold liability. Contact the Law Offices of Steven M. Sweat today to schedule a free consultation by calling (310) 592-0445.