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Fraternity Injury Verdict Staggering $7.2 Million

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Chattanooga, TNMiller & Martin attorneys Leah Gerbitz and Neil Brunetz recently obtained a $7.2M jury verdict for a plaintiff who sustained a spinal injury from participating in a fraternity sponsored ‘slip-n-slide’ recruitment event.

Sam Dowlen was a freshman in August 2009 when he participated in the event that was part of the Tennessee Tech University fraternity recruitment process. Dowlen had to undergo spinal fusion surgery. “Sam spent two months in the hospital essentially as a quadriplegic,” says Gerbitz. “Although he regained considerable motor function, Sam still has significant problems with sensory and fine motor skills.”

Gerbitz and Brunetz say the $7.2 million verdict against the fraternity was likely won by testimonies from family and key experts.

“We had testimony regarding Sam’s life care plan, including a biomedical engineer who helped explain how the injuries were caused,” Brunetz explains. “We also brought in an engineering psychologist who explained the decision making process—what would cause Sam to go down this slip-n-slide. He explained issues such as a freshman being new on campus and wanting to be accepted. He explained the factors that motivate people to do things like this. We also presented testimony about a life care plan that projected expenses for Sam to live with his injuries.”

The trial lasted five days and the verdict was found against both the local and national fraternity. The latter was found liable on a theory of agency. The university was not found at fault.

“The university was identified on the jury verdict form, however, and the jury did not allocate a percentage of fault, but they could have,” says Brunetz. “We pursued the university in a separate court and they settled months before the jury trial began,” Gerbitz added. “As Sam’s lawyers we didn’t try to prove the university was responsible because that would take away from those who we believed were responsible, i.e. the fraternity.”

“It is a significant case because the jury found the national fraternity responsible for the actions of a local chapter,” says Gerbitz. “We now have calls from lawyers representing other national fraternities, asking what they can do to protect themselves from this happening to them.”

Dowlen has since returned to Tennessee Tech University after one year in rehab with no cognitive problems.

Judge Amy Hollars presided in Samuel Dowlen v. The Fraternity of Phi Gamma Delta et al. Putnam County Circuit Court Case No 10J-0231, May 25, 2012.

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