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Sunday, December 10, 2023 | Back issues
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Reno Fraternity Facing Lawsuit After Pledge’s Death

Ryan Abele was an 18-year-old University of Nevada, Reno, freshman last October when he was knocked unconscious after falling down a dark stairway leading to the basement of a fraternity house and smacking his head on a concrete wall.

RENO, Nev. (CN) – Ryan Abele was an 18-year-old University of Nevada, Reno, freshman last October when he was knocked unconscious after falling down a dark stairway leading to the basement of a fraternity house and smacking his head on a concrete wall.

When he was admitted to the hospital a little more than an hour later on the morning of Oct. 16, his blood-alcohol level was determined to be .30, fueled by drinking about a third of a bottle of 100-proof Captain Morgan rum the night before as part of a ritual for induction into the Sigma Nu fraternity.

A fraternity member, designated as Abele’s “Big Brother,” had pointed to a spot on the full 750-milliliter bottle of rum indicating a third of its contents and instructed Abele: “Drink to here before you leave this room.”  At the time, the two had joined another member in his room at the fraternity house. They were part of the so-called “No Limits Captain” family within the fraternity chapter, an apparent reference to the Captain Morgan rum.

Abele, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in the stairway fall, died on Oct. 27, 11 days after fraternity members ordered him to “get the fuck downstairs” while he paused at the top of the stairs after being awakened at about 5:45 a.m. He and other new fraternity members were summoned to go to the basement to clean up from the previous night’s activities, part of their induction proceedings.

The events surrounding the student’s death are spelled out in a 16-page lawsuit filed last Friday by Abele’s parents, John and Wendy Abele of Concord, California.

The complaint, filed in state court for Washoe County, names as defendants the Delta XI Chapter of Sigma Nu Fraternity and Sigma Nu Housing Authority, described as the owner of the fraternity house.  Eric Medina, Karsten Chung, Joel Kaufmann, Joseph Dayton and Kyle Sharp, identified as members of the fraternity at the time of Abele’s death; and Kyle Bryce, identified as the fraternity chapter’s advisor, are also named as defendants.

The suit seeks unspecified damages and medical and incidental expenses on claims of negligence, violation of state law by providing alcohol to an underage person, violations of state law and university policy on hazing, violation of university alcohol policies and dangerous and defective condition of real property.

Peter Cuttitta and Ravn Whitington of the Law Office of Porter Simon of Reno represent the Abeles.

Ryan Abele and other members of the pledge class, according to the complaint, had received written material in which fraternity members vowed not to engage in hazing and the misuse of alcohol. They were informed that pledges will have a “dry” candidate program and that alcohol misuse “has no place in our chapter,” the suit states.

The defendants “knew that hazing, including the abuse of alcohol, which endangered the health and safety of the pledge class members, were integral parts of the pledge process they designed and implemented, and that contrary to the program’s representations, their decisions in that respect were not based upon honor, but past precedent, and they negligently failed to disclose this to Ryan Abele and the other members of the fall 2016 pledge class,” the Abeles say in their complaint.

The fraternity was placed on probation the prior year for violating the university’s Student Code of Conduct at a party called “Sigma Zoo,” in which underage drinking and intoxication occurred, according to the complaint.

The probation lasted until the end of the spring 2016 semester, and the fraternity was required to create a set of risk-management policies and conduct an educational alcohol seminar, according to the complaint.

Sigma Nu said this past January that it had revoked the charter of the Reno chapter, established in 1914, because of alcohol and hazing-related violations.

“In keeping with our mission of developing ethical leaders for society, Sigma Nu Fraternity will not tolerate such violations of its law, policies and principles,” Brad Beacham, the national fraternity’s executive director, said at the time.

Beacham said the fraternity had no comment on the lawsuit because of the legal nature of the matter.

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