Family of Fresno State teen who died after hazing sues fraternity

The Fresno BeeMarch 18, 2013 

The parents of a Fresno State student who died after a night of binge drinking at a fraternity house last year have sued the Theta Chi fraternity and six of its members listed as organizers of the event.

The Theta Chi members, the lawsuit said, could have saved fraternity pledge Philip Dhanens' life if they acted early enough and were paying attention to his symptoms after binge drinking.

Dhanens was one of 15 pledges in a room where they were told they had to drink eight bottles of hard liquor in order to leave.

The civil lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, was filed just days after the Fresno County District Attorney's Office filed misdemeanor criminal charges of hazing and furnishing alcohol to a minor against three fraternity members.

Fresno police and prosecutors said the three oversaw the events of Aug. 31, the night Dhanens collapsed. He died two days later.

The lawsuit, filed in Fresno County Superior Court, said the Indiana-based fraternity had a legal obligation not to haze Dhanens and a legal duty not to allow an event where underage people consume alcoholic beverages.

Based on previous hazing incidents, the fraternity should have known that abuse of alcohol was likely, the lawsuit said.

The fraternity failed to act when Dhanens said he was not feeling well. That was before he was dragged into the fraternity's "drunk room" and hours before emergency personnel were called.

"He was abandoned and helpless for hours before being discovered without a heartbeat and covered in his own vomit," the suit stated.

If fraternity members had called 9-1-1 when Dhanens collapsed instead of hours later, his life could have been saved, the suit said.

Named along with the fraternity were six members -- Leonard Serrato, Aaron Raymo, Daniel Baker, Charles Austin-Fisher, Scott Long and Daniel Dukes -- alleged in the lawsuit to be organizers of the pledge night.

Serrato, Raymo and Baker were named in a misdemeanor complaint filed by the Fresno County District Attorney's Office.

The lawsuit said the fraternity violated procedures in the Fresno State Handbook, which says: "student organizations are responsible for the actions of their members at functions sponsored by the organization."

Fresno State is not named in the suit.

It's unlikely that any other fraternity members will face criminal charges, said Kelly Keenan, Fresno County's chief assistant district attorney.

"We looked at everyone and made our decision," Keenan said. "There is no information they (civil lawyers) have that we don't."

Hank Nuwer, an author of four books on hazing, said civil cases against fraternities frequently get settled before going to trial. The largest single payout was $14 million from a jury that found a fraternity member at the University of Miami culpable in the death of a pledge.

The pledge was found to be 10% at fault, lowering the payout to $12.6 million.

"These cases are almost always settled, and when they are not they can be large," said Nuwer, an assistant professor at Franklin College in Indiana.

There is an advantage in not going to trial, he said, because fewer details of events leading up to a death are disclosed.

Sometimes, Nuwer said, a civil filing also can prompt additional criminal complaints, which recently occurred in a Florida A&M hazing case.

Nuwer said the cases usually focus on fraternity leaders.

"There's quite a bit to lose if you can't control your membership," he said.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6166 or or @beebenjamin on Twitter.

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