Parents Are Awarded $1.5-Million in Hazing Death of SUNY-Plattsburgh Student

December 04, 2007

The parents of a freshman at the State University of New York College at Plattsburgh who died in a fraternity hazing incident in 2003 have been awarded $1.5-million in a wrongful-death lawsuit against one of their son’s tormentors, the Times Union, a newspaper in Albany, N.Y., reported.

The judge presiding over the trial in a state court, Justice Stephen A. Ferradino, ordered John Burnius to pay the family of Walter Dean Jennings III $400,000 in compensatory damages and $100,000 for wrongful death, plus $1-million in punitive damages for “arrogant and uncivilized” disregard for Mr. Jennings’s rights and welfare.

A police investigation in 2003 concluded that Mr. Jennings had died from swelling of the brain after being forced to drink gallons of water poured through a funnel. The Times Union reported that over a period of 12 days he was also repeatedly forced to drink alcohol until he vomited, consume drinks that had been urinated in, and sit in a confined space where the heat had been turned up as high as 100 degrees after he was forced to do calisthenics.

Mr. Burnius was one of 11 members of the Psi Epsilon Chi fraternity, which was not officially recognized by the university, who were charged with crimes, including criminally negligent homicide. They all pleaded guilty and were sentenced to probation and community service. In 2004 Mr. Jennings’s parents sued Mr. Burnius and 13 other members of Psi Epsilon Chi. All of the other defendants settled out of court. The university punished 21 students in connection with the death. —Charles Huckabee