Local chapter of fraternity freed from lawsuit seeking $130K over broken jaw, racial slur

A lawsuit against a University of Kansas fraternity where members allegedly fought and hurt a nonmember trying to get into a party at the chapter house remains pending in Douglas County District Court.

However, a judge has dropped allegations against the local fraternity chapter, though the national fraternity remains a defendant.

A jury trial is now scheduled for Feb. 21.

Plaintiff Philip Hawley is asking for $130,000 for past and future medical bills and noneconomic loss, according to a pretrial document recently filed by his attorney, Roger Fincher.

Hawley filed the suit in October 2016 against Pi Kappa Phi fraternity and its KU chapter, which at the time was located at 1537 Tennessee St. in Lawrence. The chapter does not currently have a house.

According to Hawley’s suit:

On Oct. 31, 2015, Hawley and some friends — including two African-American men — were waiting in line to get into a party at the chapter house, where alcoholic drinks were being served to members of the public.

“One or more” intoxicated members came up to the group and used a racial slur in reference to Hawley’s friends.

Pushing and shoving ensued, then a fraternity member punched Hawley in the face. “Numerous” other members then attacked and hit him, resulting in his jaw being fractured and requiring multiple surgeries.

Hawley says in his suit that the fraternity should pay because on the night in question, it violated KU Interfraternity Council rules banning hard liquor and “offensive behavior.” Hawley alleged the national fraternity also is liable because it “failed to prohibit the conduct of its member fraternity.”

“The serving of hard liquor by the fraternity resulted in members becoming intoxicated and uttering the offensive language, which directly resulted in plaintiff being assaulted and battered,” the lawsuit says.

Earlier this year, the local chapter filed a motion for summary judgment, which Judge Kay Huff granted, removing the local chapter from the lawsuit.

Attorneys for the local chapter had argued that, as an unincorporated association, it is not a legal entity and thus has no capacity to be sued, according to the chapter’s motion.

In November, attorneys filed a motion for summary judgment asking that the court also find the national fraternity not liable.

The national fraternity, with headquarters in South Carolina, recognizes about 185 active chapters across the United States, with close to 10,000 student and associate members, according to the motion.

As a small corporation in another state, the national fraternity cannot “police and monitor” day-to-day activities of thousands of students across the country, attorney Molly Westering said at a Dec. 11 hearing on the motion. Although the national fraternity does have power to expel members and revoke charters after the fact, the organization would not have known about faraway individuals hosting an against-the-rules party, for example.

“There is no legal duty on behalf of the sole remaining defendant, the national fraternity, toward Mr. Hawley,” Westering said.

Fincher argued that chapters and members nationwide are bound by the national fraternity’s bylaws and risk management policies, “to protect the public, to protect their own members.”

“The injuries flow directly there from the breach of their own rules,” Fincher said.

At the Dec. 11 hearing, the judge took the national fraternity’s motion for summary judgment under advisement.

Police were not dispatched to the scene after Hawley was reportedly injured, the Journal-World previously reported.

Recent court filing don’t discuss what, if any, sanctions the local chapter faced from the KU Interfraternity Council or the national fraternity as a result of the 2015 party.

The KU Interfraternity Council website lists Pi Kappa Phi as a current member chapter. In fall 2018, the chapter plans to move into a newly constructed house on the other side of campus at 1505 Sigma Nu Place.