by Paul Szaniawski
The family of Gary DeVercelly Jr., who died last spring of alcohol poisoning, has filed a civil suit against the University claiming that negligence by officials, employees and Phi Kappa Tau (PKT) brothers caused the freshman’s death after an alleged fraternity hazing incident last March.
Filed in Mercer County Superior Court on Dec. 28, the wrongful death suit cites what it calls the University’s reckless mismanagement and willful disregard of its fraternities, along with the PKT members’ failure to help DeVercelly after he drank two-thirds of a bottle of Absolut Vodka.
“Had Gary received proper care before emergency personnel were summoned, during the extended period of time during which he was slowly succumbing to alcohol poisoning, he would have survived unharmed,” the lawsuit claims.
The civil suit was announced shortly after settlement talks broke down at a meeting between the two sides in mid-December.
“Despite the University’s willingness to continue the dialogue, the family chose today to file a civil action against Rider and certain individuals,” President Mordechai Rozanski said in a statement to the Rider community. “We disagree with the allegations in that filing and will contest them vigorously.”
The University’s position has not changed since the Dec. 28 response.
Director of University Communications Dan Higgins said the school is still open to continue dialogue.
Both parties signed a confidentiality agreement not to reveal what was discussed at the settlement meeting. Although both sides also declined to comment on specific demands in the lawsuit, the attorney representing the DeVercelly family said they believe the University has not handled the tragedy’s aftermath as it should have.
“We filed a lawsuit obviously because of our belief that Rider hasn’t met our terms,” attorney Douglas Fierberg said in a phone interview from his Washington, D.C. office. “It’s fair to say if Rider did do everything correctly we wouldn’t be currently in litigation with them. There is a number of things we believe Rider still has to do.”
Thus far, the family is not satisfied with Rider’s attempt to ensure a similar incident would never happen again.
“Since Gary’s death, we have given Rider every opportunity to do right by our family and make the changes necessary to protect other students,” Gary DeVercelly Sr. said in a statement when the lawsuit was announced.
However, University officials feel Rider did make the proper changes by updating its alcohol education efforts and policy, which Rozanski highlighted in his statement to the community, satisfying a pledge made to the DeVercellys, according to Higgins.
“The president made a commitment to the family, to honor Gary’s memory, to further education on binge drinking and hazing,” he said. “We’re confident through the implementation of the Presidential Task Force’s recommendations that the University is a safer and healthier environment.”
The family is suing for $50 million in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages “or no less than the maximum amount allowable by law and proven at trial,” as well as other damages, according to a copy of the lawsuit The Rider News obtained from the Superior Court of New Jersey in Mercer County.
After being praised by numerous media outlets for its openness and helpful public relations immediately after the alcohol poisoning death, the University has been less forthcoming since the case went into litigation. In an e-mail, faculty members were asked not to speak with reporters or parents but to instead refer any questions to University Communications or academic deans’ offices.
The University spokesperson also declined to comment on the case. “It’s a matter of litigation,” Higgins said. “Given that the matter may proceed at a trial, as a matter of fairness to all the parties, the appropriate time and place for a response is in that forum.”
The 11-count lawsuit names Rider; PKT members senior Adriano DiDonato, house manager; Mike Torney, former fraternity president; junior Vincent Calogero, the “big brother”; senior Dominic Olsen, pledge master; and the PKT national fraternity and local chapter.
Among other claims, the suit says the University scrutinized and supervised managers of Greek Houses less than directors of other residence halls.
“By its actions and omissions, Rider University provided substantial assistance that enabled its fraternities to violate the law and University safety regulations,” the suit said.
It alleges that DiDonato, a University employee as house manager, acted irresponsibly by allowing or condoning “illegal and dangerous activities” at the chapter’s home on March 28.
Another claim made in the lawsuit is that Rider did not punish those responsible for the death, underage drinking or alleged hazing in a timely fashion.
But the Lawrence Township Police asked Rider to wait with its investigation, not to interfere with police detectives.
In April of 2007, Dean of Students Anthony Campbell, told The Rider News that the University was waiting to see the results of the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office findings, and for the investigation to take its course, before any punishments were issued by Rider.
In November, the University began its judicial process and it is still ongoing. The investigation is aimed at all current students who received citations stemming from the night of March 29. The PKT chapter on Rider’s campus was disbanded last summer.
Gary’s death detailed
The civil suit also illustrates, step by step, the events of March 29 and March 30, 2007, the night when Gary DeVercelly Jr. attended a “Big/Little” event for new members to drink with their “Big Brothers.” The graphic one-sided account is based on beliefs of the DeVercelly family and legal counsel, as well as information witnesses told police and the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office. It is not considered absolute truth in any court of law.
“Gary was carried or assisted to the second floor of the PKT Chapter House and placed on a sofa with a towel and bucket under his mouth… After Gary was carried or assisted to the second floor of the PKT Chapter House, the Hump Night activities continued without interruption. Gary stated to others that he had no gag reflex and, thus, could not — without assistance — vomit out some of the alcohol that was rendering him incapacitated.
“Gary was held upside down with his head in a trashcan while at least one person shoved his fingers into Gary’s mouth to induce vomiting… One of Gary’s fellow PKT pledges requested that emergency assistance be summoned, but no help was summoned until Gary began to turn blue and foam at his mouth…
“After EMS arrived, Gary briefly opened his eyes in response to EMS personnel, indicating that he was conscious of his circumstances and consciously suffering. Gary then went into cardiac arrest on the PKT fraternity house floor. Gary was taken to Capital Health System, Fuld Campus, where he was revived and put on a respirator, in a coma. Gary’s blood alcohol level was .426.
“In addition to cardiac arrest, acute alcohol poisoning and massive bilateral cerebral edema, Gary’s medical findings included a possible occipital skull fracture. PKT fraternity members told hospital personnel that Gary had fallen off a futon and struck his head, and that his head was struck again when it was shoved into a trash can to try to induce vomiting.
“Gary’s family arrived in New Jersey on the afternoon of Thursday, March 29. Gary was treated with fluids to stabilize his blood pressure, but the treatment exacerbated his cerebral edema. Gary’s parents were advised that their son could not be saved, but that he could remain ‘alive’ for hours on the respirator. At about 10:30 a.m. on Friday, March 30, at the family’s request, Gary was extubated and he died a few minutes later.”
Gary DeVercelly Jr. would have been 19 years old on Sept. 4, 2007.
The University disputes these and other claims in the lawsuit. “It’s important to remember that these are only allegations that have not been established as fact,” Higgins said.
New policies introduced
Following the freshman’s drinking-related death, Rider instituted sweeping changes to its alcohol policy and the way it manages Greek houses.
Campbell said some of the changes included stricter rules and sanctions; a new Good Samaritan policy that encourages students to find help for peers in a dangerous medical state because of alcohol and that shields them from campus repercussions, if they were also drinking; and violations with different levels of punishment.
The policy update also requires mandatory parental notification of underage drinking violations, unlike the old policy, under which notifying parents was just an option, according to Campbell.
“I think the alcohol policy changed the way we do things on campus,” Campbell said. “[Fraternities] certainly aren’t having the parties [they] had.”
The University now prohibits alcohol from being served at unsupervised social events, like fraternity parties. In addition, six full-time professionals now serve as residence directors in Greek houses to improve management of fraternities and sororities. Also hired were five additional full-time Public Safety officers and a full-time substance abuse specialist.
Months after beefing up staff, making policy changes, disbanding PKT and renovating the former fraternity’s house into a residence hall — which seemingly painted over every clue to the building’s past — the pain of losing a friend has still not subsided for many students.
“So it’s snowing… and it reminded me of my first snow ball fight with you which lead to more trouble of decorating the doors and what not… wish you were here. Love you always,” a student wrote in a message on the facebook wall of Gary DeVercelly Jr. in December.
The wounds of losing a son have also not yet begun to heal for Gary Sr. and Julie DeVercelly.
Reached earlier this week, the parents said they were struggling to deal with the tragedy.
“We’re trying to cope with losing Gary,” his mother said. “He would have been going back to school just now.”
Although at first receptive to the idea of speaking to Rider’s student community on their loss earlier this week, the parents later declined.
“In the future we would like to address the student body of Rider, but just not now,” Julie DeVercelly said.