Family Sues SDSU, Fraternity Over Son’s Hazing Death

In this Sept. 2, 2020, file photo, people sit at tables at San Diego State University in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

SAN DIEGO (CN) — The family of a 19-year-old San Diego State University student who was so drunk after being hazed at a fraternity pledge event he fell from his bunk bed, suffered a skull fracture and was taken off life support, claim in a wrongful death lawsuit the fraternity attempted to cover up what happened.

In a 57-page complaint filed Nov. 25 and made available in San Diego Superior Court Wednesday, Dylan Bartolo Hernandez’s family claims SDSU failed to enforce and the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity failed to comply with the school’s zero-tolerance policy and anti-hazing statutes aimed at preventing injuries which students could sustain from alcohol-laden Greek life initiation activities.

Bartolo Hernandez attended a “Big Brother, Little Brother Night” — dubbed as one of the “three deadly nights” — when pledging the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity Nov 6, 2019 where his family claims “several members, officers and agents of Phi Gamma Delta hazed Dylan by forcing him to consume large amounts of alcohol, play drinking games, paddling, etc.”

The 19-year-old and his pledge brothers were “blindfolded, taken upstairs, screamed at, threatened, and hit” in the fraternity house on Montezuma Road before being “forced to consume shots of vodka and rum to the point of intoxication,” his family claims.

“By 10:00 p.m., Dylan’s speech was slurred, he could not walk on his own, he had stumbled and fallen several times, he had become ill, and he did not even have the mental or physical ability to use his own cell phone,” the family claims.

Hernandez was later walked to his residence hall on campus. In the middle of the night he fell from his bunk bed and was found unresponsive the next morning.

He had suffered a skull fracture and was placed on life support, but his injuries were too severe to recover from and he was taken off life support Nov. 8, 2019.

But prior to Hernandez’s passing, his family claims the fraternity, which was supposed to serve as his collegiate family, was already attempting to silence its SDSU members from going public with what happened.

California State University, SDSU and Phi Gamma Delta began their investigation into the cause and circumstances of his death on Nov. 7, 2019.

But at a Phi Gamma Delta chapter meeting, executive director Rob Caudill and other leaders told fraternity members “silence is golden” and “do not provide the authorities or school with any information.”

“In addition, members and pledges were instructed via the Fraternity’s SnapChat and GroupMe accounts to ‘Keep your mouths shut!’ ‘Just remember, Silence is Golden!’ ‘Get Dylan’s phone’ and wipe all ’incriminating’ evidence off of it and your phones,” according to the complaint.

Before evidence could be destroyed, his sisters retrieved videos, photos and social media messages from Hernandez’s cellphone, the family claims, and forwarded the information to SDSU’s police.

“Despite receiving the incriminating evidence on November 7-8, 2019 and knowing the fraternity related defendants’ intent to destroy incriminating evidence, SDSU’s police department did not seek a warrant or attempt to speak to any of the fraternity related defendants until November 27, 2019,” the family claims.

Additionally: “When they finally tried, the fraternity related defendants advised that they had lawyers provided by Phi Gamma Delta and that they would not answer any questions.”

An investigation by SDSU’s police department released to the family Dec. 24, 2019 confirmed their claims, including that their son’s blood alcohol content was dangerously high, he was exhibiting signs of acute alcohol poisoning and that fraternity members had been directed to destroy “incriminating evidence.”

Despite videos of the hazing event and SDSU’s investigation, fraternity officers and members were allowed to remain on campus.

“SDSU has not so much as reprimanded one individual for their involvement in the dangerous hazing that numerous pledges suffered in the fall of 2019, much less on November 6-7, 2019,” the family claims.

Only after learning about the family’s intent to file a lawsuit this past August did Phi Gamma Delta and its executive director Rob Caudill notify SDSU it had decided “to close its chapter” at the school.

In a letter to the school Aug. 13, Caudill “belatedly admitted” Hernandez had been hazed and the fraternity had obstructed and destroyed evidence related to the investigation, according to the complaint.

But in an emailed statement, Caudill called the allegations in the lawsuit “false” and “based on information that is demonstrably inaccurate.”

“The truth is that the international organization acted with transparency throughout this tragic situation, and we worked closely with investigators to gather and share all the relevant facts about what transpired,” Caudill said.. “We moved immediately to temporarily suspend this chapter, and once our disciplinary process determined that our policies on alcohol use and student safety had been compromised, we suspended its charter permanently. Our highest priority is the safety of our members and anyone associated with our organization, we will continue to do everything in our power to make positive impacts on college and community.”

Named defendants include the national chapter of Phi Gamma Delta, as well as individual fraternity leaders and members, CSU, SDSU and university president Adela De La Torre, as well as Foliot Furniture Pacific Inc.

The Hernandez family seeks unspecified economic and noneconomic damages. They are represented by attorney George Kindley who did not respond to an after-hours email request for comment.

SDSU spokeswoman Cory Marshall said the university has not seen the lawsuit and cannot comment on it. The week following Hernandez’s death, SDSU President Adela de la Torre commissioned two task force groups on student activities and safety and alcohol and substance misuse.

The groups shared recommendations with SDSU earlier this year, some of which the school has implemented including establishing a hazing prevention task force which had its first meeting this fall.

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