Experts weigh in on HPU hazing suit
Prominent legal and medical professionals are lending their services to the family of a High Point University student suing the school, alleging that his death was the result of fraternity hazing.
Raleigh attorney Wade Smith is representing Deborah Tipton, the mother of Robert Eugene Tipton Jr., a 22-year-old HPU student who died in March 2012.
Smith is well-known for representing Jeffrey MacDonald, a doctor convicted of murdering his wife and two daughters at Fort Bragg in 1970. Smith’s other previous clients include one of the three members of the Duke University lacrosse team cleared in 2007 of charges they raped a stripper.
The suit, brought by Deborah Tipton on behalf of her son’s estate, alleges that Tipton died from an assault while pledging Delta Sigma Phi fraternity at HPU.
Smith said Deborah Tipton is not granting interviews. He also declined to comment on the case.
“Since the case is now in court, we don’t want to do anything that would be inappropriate,” he said.
A FAMOUS PATHOLOGIST
Tipton has also hired Dr. Cyril Wecht, a forensic pathologist who has been a consultant in many high-profile cases. Wecht is perhaps best-known for his dissent to the findings of the Warren Commission that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Wecht disputed the findings of the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, which ruled that Tipton died from an overdose of prescription drugs. Wecht theorized that Tipton died instead from aspiration of food particles brought on by a concussion.
In a statement after the suit was filed last week, HPU said it believes the allegations are unfounded and that the university will defend itself against the charges.
HPU has 30 days to file an answer to the suit.
WILL THE CASE GO TO TRIAL?
Only about 2 percent of all civil cases go to trial, said Wake Forest University School of Law Professor Michael D. Green. Most cases are settled out of court or dismissed by a judge.
On one side is Wecht’s theory that contusions on Tipton’s scalp and face are evidence of blunt force trauma to his head. That is countered by a state medical examiner’s finding that the contusions were superficial and did not contribute to Tipton’s death. High Point police did not charge anyone in Tipton’s death after concluding that there was no evidence he was assaulted.
“This could be a messy trial from HPU’s perspective. On the other hand, it looks like they would have a good defense if (authorities are) right about what the cause of death was,” said Green. “From the family’s perspective, having all that information about drugs being used is not attractive, either.”
‘THE UNIVERSITY HAS SOME LAW ON THEIR SIDE’
Gregory Parks, assistant professor of law at Wake Forest University and an expert on hazing, said schools have been held liable in some civil suits involving hazing. In other cases, courts have found that schools being sued don’t have a duty to protect the individual victim.
“The university has some law on their side. It just depends on how risk-averse they are,” said Parks. “Protracted litigation could mean bad press. Settling could mean more law suits coming down the pike.”
Douglas Fierberg, a Washington, D.C. lawyer and expert on hazing who has represented hazing victims in civil cases, said he thinks the case could be unusual because there is so much dispute about the medical evidence.
“That may create issues of fact that are fit for a jury to resolve,” said Fierberg, who is not involved in the Tipton case. “That’s what trials are made for — to resolve issues of fact.”