Lawsuits: Hazing led to tragic death of UL student

A University of Louisiana at Lafayette student who was subjected to forced sleep-deprivation and other fraternity hazing activities during the 2016 homecoming weekend fell asleep at the wheel and killed another student, according to two civil lawsuits filed in the 15th Judicial District against Kappa Sigma fraternity, some of its members and the University of Louisiana Board of Supervisors.

The suits also claim university officials and national Kappa Sigma leaders did not provide adequate supervision over the UL chapter's activities and that they should have been aware of the hazing and its potential for injury. 

Both lawsuits seek unspecified damages.

Asleep at the wheel

On Nov. 6, 2016, Rustam Nizamutdinova, a UL student from Uzbekistan, was struck as he walked on Johnston Street by a vehicle driven by Michael Gallagher, who was a Kappa Sigma pledge.

Nizamutdinova's mother, Farida Shavkatova Nizamutdinova, filed a lawsuit in September against Kappa Sigma and specifically named four fraternity members (Alex Frederick, Camp Sledge, Manny Duhon and Imaan Ouedraogo) as well as 10 fraternity members identified only as John Doe.

The suit alleges Gallagher was subjected to hazing as they sought membership from the fraternity defendants, including extreme sleep deprivation.

In the early morning hours of Nov. 6, after being kept awake for 72 hours and made to perform duties for fraternity members, Gallagher left to drive the five miles to his home, the suit says.

As Gallagher was driving south on Johnston Street toward his home, Rustam Nizamutdinov was walking south on Johnston returning to his apartment from a friend’s house. On that stretch of road there are no sidewalks, and Nizamutdinov was lawfully walking along the shoulder, the suit says.

Gallagher fell asleep while driving. He veered off the roadway and struck Rustam, who was pronounced dead at the scene.

Gallagher and his parents, Michael and Amy Gallagher, also filed a lawsuit on Nov. 3 against Kappa Sigma (national organization and UL chapter), the UL Board of Supervisors and 10 unnamed members of the fraternity.

 

The family's lawsuit says the wreck was the result of sleep deprivation by the fraternity. It says Gallagher phoned his parents after the wreck, but was unaware he had struck Nizamutdinov.

The parents found their child in shock unable to remember what happened, his truck totaled and Nizamutdinov’s body lying nearby. As a result, the suit says, the parents suffered mental anguish and emotional distress that is severe, debilitating and foreseeable.

On Monday, the anniversary of the wreck, Gallagher wrote on Facebook: "RIP Rustam... God took you into his hands and He wrapped his arms around me during the crash," he wrote. "I don’t know why it was you and not me but I do know you continue to watch over me in heaven just as I pray for you and your family everyday... I cannot say it enough how sorry I am or how I wish things would been different."

Investigations

The UL Board should have known of Kappa Sigma’s hazing history, the suit says, and violated its duty to protect students.

UL President Joseph Savoie is a Kappa Sigma alum.

Kappa Sigma chapters have been suspended, banned or removed from several other major universities in recent years, to include: 

  • In 2001, a Kappa Sigma pledge at the University of Miami drowned while with two Kappa Sigma brothers. A judgment in a civil suit awarded the family $14 million from those present at his death.
  • In 2008, Northwestern State suspended its chapter after finding racially insensitive behavior by members and pledges.
  • In 2014, a University of West Virginia pledge died with a blood-alcohol content of .493 following a hazing incident in which he was given at least one bottle of hard liquor.
  • Wake Forest revoked its Kappa Sigma chapter in 2014 as the result of hazing allegations that included pledges being trapped in basements, stuck in animal pens, forced to eat inedible items from a trough and forced to sit in other people's vomit.
  • In October 2016, six members of Kappa Sigma's chapter at the University of Connecticut were arrested and the chapter closed by the university after as the result of allegations that the chapter illegally distributed alcohol, which resulted in the death of a UC student.

Despite Kappa Sigma's history, UL continued to market and promote the fraternity, the lawsuits say. The university also allowed Kappa Sigma and other fraternities to self-govern, creating an environment in which hazing could persist.

UL investigated the chapter after Nizamutdinova's death, and in July revoked its charter. However, the university did not publicly announce the revocation, offer reasons why the chapter has been disbanded or give any insight into the issues being investigated.

However, documents obtained from the university Thursday through a public records request show the findings of its investigation include:

  • Underage pledges were allowed to consume alcohol at chapter events
  • A chapter tradition involves paddling with a wooden paddle
  • Pledges were burned with cigarettes
  • At tailgating events, pledges were "strongly encouraged" to drink whatever active members gave them
  • During homecoming week, pledges were subjected to sleep deprivation; if caught sleeping, water and other liquids would be poured on them
  • After the homecoming game, sleep-deprived pledges were designated drivers for active members

The suits come amid a broad review of hazing policies in the state's higher-education system. Gov. John Bel Edwards called for the review after the Sept. 14 death of a Louisiana State University student.

In the wake of that death, UL suspended four fraternities to further investigate their activities.

The fraternities Theta Xi, Kappa Alpha Order, Sigma Nu and Sigma Alpha Epsilon each were placed on interim suspension after reports of conduct that did not comply with policies and procedures of the University and of the four national organizations, according to a university statement released Thursday.

UL dean of students Margarita Perez said university administrators began receiving reports of hazing following the death of Maxwell Gruver, who was pledging for LSU's Phi Delta Theta fraternity. 

The interim suspensions have been lifted following investigations by each national organization, according to the statement.

"The University and the national organizations will continue to monitor the fraternities," it states.

Perez and other university officials collaborated with members of the national organizations who came to campus to conduct interviews and investigations.

"We have to be sure that they're providing a safe living and learning environment," Perez said in an interview Nov. 2.

She said the investigations are providing a "good assessment" of each organization — what they're doing well, where they need improvement, how best to continue and what they need to help implement those improvements.

"I think what we will see is four very improved organizations... and back on track," she said. "It's real easy to sway and get off track. In most people's lives you don't always see a thing until you have to, until it's a problem. An organization is no different."

Perez said there is a shared responsibility when it comes to Greek Life at colleges — students, the university and the national organizations. 

"The three parts are trying together to figure out the best way to develop these students," Perez said. "... When one is out of balance it reminds you we need all three."

Reporters Leigh Guidry and Claire Taylor contributed to this report.

© 2017 WWL-TV


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