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PSU fraternity not liable for actions, it argues

| Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Penn State fraternity charged with giving alcohol to Greater Latrobe High School graduate Joe Dado hours before his death in a campus stairwell argued at trial that it shouldn't be held responsible for the acts of its individual members.

Centre County Judge Thomas King Kistler presided Tuesday at the nonjury trial of Alpha Tau Omega related to the September death of Dado, a freshman engineering student.

After hearing an hour of testimony, he ordered attorneys for the prosecution and the fraternity to submit written arguments within three weeks, the Associated Press reported.

"The reason he wants legal briefs is it is so uncommon," Kathleen Yurchak, an attorney for Alpha Tau Omega, said of the case. "It's very difficult to prove that an organization is liable for the acts of its members. At what level do you become absolutely responsible for what someone does?"

State College police charged the fraternity with two misdemeanor counts of furnishing alcohol to a minor after Dado, 18, died of head trauma when he fell down a concrete stairwell.

Before Tuesday's testimony, Kistler dismissed a count alleging a violation of the state crimes code. The remaining count alleges a violation of the state liquor code.

Another fraternity, Phi Gamma Delta, faces the same misdemeanor charges, which are pending in Common Pleas Court.

Dado's blood-alcohol level was 0.169 percent. Under Pennsylvania law, a driver with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent is considered to be intoxicated.

Authorities say Dado went to Alpha Tau Omega before arriving at Phi Gamma Delta, which was about 75 yards from where his body was found 39 hours after he left.

But Yurchak argued there was no testimony that a party at Alpha Tau Omega was sanctioned or funded by the fraternity.

"What (testimony) did show was that there were people drinking beer," Yurchak said. "That's not enough to hold the corporation responsible for the actions of its members."

Yurchak pointed to testimony from W.R. Hickey Beer Distributor owner John Hickey, who said fraternities get a discount on beer purchases. She argued the members might have used the fraternity name to get the discount.

Penn State Interfraternity Council Director Roy Baker testified that a policy of "dry" rush events for freshmen didn't sit well with upperclassmen.

"Many members expressed unhappiness that recruitment was alcohol-free," Baker said. "Older students were convinced that if freshmen weren't allowed to drink they wouldn't join because they weren't allowed to experience the social aspect."

Four of Dado's friends testified that they flashed wristbands at the door of Alpha Tau Omega to get in. They needed to know someone inside, they said.

Those wristbands were handed out by the IFC to identify potential recruits during the fraternity rush period, Baker said.

"If a young man showed up Saturdays with a wristband, he could be admitted," he said. "That doesn't mean he could be served or he could drink."

No proof of age was required for the wristbands, although the IFC did require addresses and pictures of the freshmen.

There were no bartenders at Alpha Tau Omega during the party, just tubs filled with ice and cans of Natural Light beer.

"There are (fraternity) brothers checking to make sure they have bracelets on, but not checking their ID," argued prosecutor Nathan Boob. "We wouldn't be making these absurd arguments if a bar were operating this way."

The beer, Boob pointed out, was purchased with fraternity money.

Police determined Dado consumed vodka shots in his dorm with friends before taking a bus to Alpha Tau Omega, where he played beer pong and took a tour. The group then headed to Phi Gamma Delta, also known as Fiji.

A friend of Dado, John A. Townsend, 21, of Latrobe faces charges for allegedly giving alcohol to Dado in Townsend's room at Fiji.

Jennifer Clifford, 22, of Gibsonia is charged with buying the vodka Dado drank with friends before he went out that night. She entered a pretrial diversionary program this spring and will have her case expunged if she follows certain conditions.

Tribune-Review reporter Chris Foreman contributed to this article.

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