Guest at Marshall University Fraternity Party Sues After a Fellow Guest’s Drunken Prank Goes Awry

deck.jpegIn the type of case that you don’t hear about every day, a guest at a Marshall University fraternity party is suing both the fraternity and the university after another guest tried, unsuccessfully, to shoot a bottle rocket out of his anus.

Travis Hughes and Louis Helmburg III were guests of the fraternity Alpha Tau Omega. In May 2011, during a late-night house party, Hughes in a “drunken stupor” attempted to shoot a bottle rocket out of his anus. He placed the bottle rocket in his anus and lit the fuse, but instead of the rocket launching, it blew up in Hughes’s rectum. The explosion startled Helmburg so much that he jumped back and fell off the deck, where he became lodged between the deck and the air conditioning unit.

Helmburg claimed that there was no railing on the deck — had not been one for years — even though the deck was three or four feet high. In his negligence lawsuit against Hughes and the fraternity, Helmberg claimed that Hughes’s alcohol consumption led to foolish, dangerous activity, and that the fraternity was irresponsible for allowing several underage drinkers, like Hughes, to attend the party. The fraternity also had the duty of ensuring that the deck was safe before entertaining, yet breached that duty by not having a railing, or by having proper supervision of the activities so that actions like Hughes’s could be prevented. Marshall University was later added as a defendant in the lawsuit due to its alleged failure to comply with its legal duty to inspect fraternity houses and ensure that they were safe.

Helmburg claims that as a result of the defendants’ breach of duty, he suffered injuries, pain and suffering, lost time playing for Marshall’s baseball team as a catcher, faces lost earning capacity, and has accrued medical bills. Helmsberg seeks both compensatory and punitive damages.

Despite the unusual facts, for a West Virginia premise liability attorney, this is very much a typical premise liability case. The owner or renter of the property has a duty to warn and/or make the property safe to potential guests. If the guest is just a visitor to one’s home, then legally speaking, that means the guest is a “licensee.” The owner or renter has strict responsibilities to a licensee, but not as much as to an “invitee.” An invitee is a guest who is there for a business purpose, or a member of the general public (if the property has been opened to the public, such as an amusement park). One important question is whether Helmburg was a licensee or an invitee. Although the party was opened up to more than just members of the fraternity, it does not appear that it was opened up to the public. That means Helmburg was likely a licensee. The owner/renter of the property has a duty to warn the licensee about hazardous conditions that are hidden, but known to the owner/renter. However, the owner/renter has no duty to warn about any dangers that the owner/renter did not know about. The fraternity and university might argue that it had no knowledge that the lack of railing posed any danger, especially if Helmburg was the first to be injured as a result.