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Frat member's bottle rocket prompts lawsuit

Jan. 28, 2012 @ 11:40 PM

HUNTINGTON -- The Greek community at Marshall University is facing its second lawsuit in a number of months with both cases linked to the issues of alcohol and violations of the organizations' policies.

The most recent case was brought by Louis Helmburg III, a catcher for Marshall's baseball team. The 21-year-old accuses the Alpha Tau Omega chapter at Marshall and one of its members of neglect for injuries he suffered in a fall from the fraternity house's deck.

The lawsuit says the incident happened May 1, 2011, when fraternity member Travis Hughes ignited a bottle rocket as he, Helmburg and others stood on a deck at the Alpha Tau Omega house, which is located along 5th Avenue.

The lawsuit claims the deck did not have a railing, which allowed Helmburg to fall upon being startled by the bottle rocket's explosion. The fall led to his body being lodged between the deck and an adjacent air conditioning unit.

Both Hughes and the fraternity are named as defendants. The lawsuit described Hughes as being underage and highly intoxicated at the time. It called his decision to ignite a bottle rocket as "stupid and dangerous."

Helmburg's lawsuit comes on the heels of another that targeted the Sigma Sigma Sigma sorority in September. It involved allegations of hazing and harassment by a Virginia woman, who claims sorority members caused her emotional distress, fear and humiliation when she spoke out about alleged violations concerning alcohol in the sorority house and men staying upstairs.

Steve Hensley, dean of student affairs at Marshall, said every Greek organization on campus has nationally established standards to prevent high-risk activities. He said underage drinking would violate state laws, along with policies set by individual chapters, the local Greek community and Marshall University.

Those policies often include a reasonable effort to check a person's identification and refuse to serve those who are underage.

"We're not naive about this," Hensley said. "Underage drinking is a problem pervasive in our society, whether for college students or non-college students, but nevertheless we take action against people who are underage drinking every single day."

The Helmburg lawsuit states Alpha Tau Omega owed the plaintiff and other guests the duty to provide a safe deck and adequate supervision from underage drinking.

Helmburg's fall caused him to endure pain and suffering, along with medical expenses, lost earnings capacity and lost time from the baseball team, the lawsuit states.

It further contends a safe deck would include an adequate railing. The lawsuit alleges the fraternity never installed such a railing and such action could have prevented the catcher's injuries. The deck stood 3 to 4 feet high.

The lawsuit also state's the fraternity's failure to supervise underage members and guests from consuming alcohol leads to such accidents.

Neither Hughes nor representatives from Alpha Tau Omega were available for comment Friday afternoon.

The Alpha Tau Omega and Tri-Sigma cases are still pending in Cabell Circuit Court.

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