Lawsuit filed against H-SC

Published 12:43 pm Thursday, June 21, 2018

Parents of a Hampden-Sydney College (H-SC) student who was found dead last year from alcohol intoxication have filed a $78 million lawsuit naming the college, the Alpha Chi Sigma fraternity and several of the fraternity’s members as defendants, according to an initial report from the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Harrison Carter Cole

The late Harrison Carter Cole, 18, was discovered at 9:15 a.m. Saturday, March 25, 2017, in a dorm room, said Virginia State Police Public Relations Director Corinne Geller.

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Richmond determined June 9, 2017 that the cause of Cole’s death was acute alcohol intoxication and the manner of death was accidental.

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H-SC Director of Marketing & Communications Gordon Neal confirmed Wednesday that there is litigation taking place right now involving the school, but he said he would not be able to discuss the specifics of a matter that is currently under litigation. 

“I would definitely say that the college community remains heartbroken for the loss of Carter Cole,” he said.

Cole, a freshman at the time of his death, was a member of the Hampden-Sydney swimming team and the Alpha Chi Sigma fraternity.

The Times-Dispatch report noted that the lawsuit was filed by attorneys for Cole’s parents, William and Carol Ann Cole, on June 7 in Prince Edward County Circuit Court. The report said the lawsuit cited that Carter Cole died after a night of excessive drinking at a rum-infused hazing event at his fraternity house.

Continuing its description of the contents of the 70-page lawsuit, the Times-Dispatch report said that the night before he was found dead, Cole had been at the fraternity house taking part in a Kraken rum party, where new members would watch the movie “Clash of the Titans.” Each time the word “Kraken” was used in the movie, new members like Cole were supposed to drink the 94-proof rum, the lawsuit says, adding that the word was used 15 times in just the first hour of the film.

The account generally corroborates information provided to The Herald by Prince Edward County Commonwealth’s Attorney Megan Clark, who, in providing details of the “movie night” event, said that to her knowledge, “a particular movie is shown as a part of fraternity tradition. During the movie, alcohol is provided.”

The Alpha Chi Sigma fraternity did not immediately respond to an email from The Herald requesting information Wednesday.

Neal confirmed in an interview with The Herald last year that the Alpha Chi Sigma chapter at H-SC had been suspended by its national office at that time. The Times-Dispatch report stated an official with the fraternity’s national office would not say whether the suspension was related to the freshman’s death.

The Times-Dispatch quoted a statement from John P. Fishwick Jr., a Roanoke-based attorney representing the Coles, summarizing their purpose for filing the lawsuit: “Carter Cole’s parents understand that no lawsuit will bring their son back to them. Carter’s parents are bringing this lawsuit to seek accountability for Carter’s death and with the hope that what happened to Carter will not happen to any other college student.”

The lawsuit’s accusations toward H-SC, the fraternity and some of its members were outlined in the Times-Dispatch report. The document cited that H-SC “permitted a culture on its campus which allowed reckless hazing, binge drinking and underage consumption of alcoholic beverages,” not properly or effectively enforcing its existing policies addressing those issues. The lawsuit said Alpha Chi Sigma’s national office either knew or should have known about these issues at its H-SC chapter and that members of the fraternity house put Cole in danger by pressuring him to drink excessively.

In September 2017, Geller said, “At the direction of the Prince Edward County Commonwealth’s Attorney (Megan Clark), Nicholas F. Chase, 22, of Wilmington, N.C., and James D. Ingersoll, 21, of Crozet, Va., were each charged Sept. 15 … by State Police with one misdemeanor count of purchasing alcoholic beverages for underage individuals (Code of VA 4.1-306).”

Clark confirmed Chase and Ingersoll were H-SC students at the time of the allegations and that they were all members of the same fraternity that Cole was in.

The Times-Dispatch report noted that prosecutors withdrew the charge against Ingersoll in February and that Chase was convicted of the misdemeanor charge in February but is appealing his case to Prince Edward Circuit Court.

While Neal declined to offer specifics, he did share the general focus of Hampden-Sydney.

“In general, I would say that alcohol and substance abuse are sort of cultural, societal challenges that are prevalent at colleges and universities across the country, and we take this extremely seriously, which is why we have long-standing programs and policies in place, not only to educate students about the dangers of binge drinking and substance abuse but also to prevent these kinds of behaviors from happening and to encourage safe practices when incidents do occur,” he said. “… I would say this tragedy definitely, it reinforces the importance of all efforts geared toward education and prevention and safety of our community.”

He later again noted the school’s long-standing program and policies but indicated that it has not allowed those things to make it complacent in light of Cole’s death.

“I would say as a result, the college has been evaluating its policies and educational programs because nothing is more important than the safety of our students, faculty and staff and guests,” he said.