Over $6 million speaks for a strong anti-hazing message

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A jury’s decision that the family of a Louisiana State University fraternity pledge is entitled to $6.1 million for his 2017 alcohol-related death sends a strong message, the family’s attorney said Monday.

Max Gruver of Roswell, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta, was only a month at LSU when he died of alcohol poisoning and aspiration in 2017 after a hazing ritual at the Phi Delta Theta fraternity home.

One of the family’s lawyers, Don Cazayoux, said last week’s ruling in Baton Rouge supported the family’s anti-harassment campaign.

“The first message is don’t do it because you could hurt someone, you could kill someone,” Cazayoux told students in a phone interview about the dangers of hazing.

The verdict was somewhat symbolic — Gruver’s parents had already entered into confidentiality agreements with the other defendants in the case, including LSU, the Phi Delta Theta fraternity and at least 10 other fraternity members.

The sole defendant in last week’s trial, Ryan Isto, was deemed 2% at fault in Gruver’s death — making him liable for $122,000 in damages.

In 2019, Matthew Naquin of Fair Oaks Ranch, Texas, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to five years in prison in connection with the Gruver case, but a judge suspended all but 2 1/2 years. Isto and another fraternity member, Sean Paul Gott, pleaded no-appeal to a misdemeanor charge related to the criminal case and were sentenced to 30 days in prison. Gott, who agreed to a civil settlement, was also found by the jury to be 2% at fault in Gruver’s death.

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Naquin, one of the defendants who reached a settlement in the civil suit filed by Gruver’s parents, was found 80% responsible for the death by a jury last week.

The University and Phi Delta Theta fraternity also reached settlements. Phi Delta Theta was banned from LSU campuses until at least 2033 due to the events leading up to Gruver’s death.

Witnesses said Naquin ordered Gruver to drink a bottle of 190-proof alcohol in September 2017. Gruver died the next morning. His blood alcohol level was 0.495%, more than six times the level considered evidence of intoxication in drunk driving cases in Louisiana.

Gruver’s parents, Rae Ann and Stephen Gruver, said at the Baton Rouge courthouse last week that it sends a message to “would-be hazers” to reconsider their actions, The Advocate reported.

“Think about the dangers of bullying, think about how it can harm people and how you will be held accountable,” said Stephen Gruver.