No Legal Duty Owed by Fraternity to Plaintiff Who Was Shot While Attending Fraternity Party

By Betsy G. Ramos, Esq.

The question of the legal duty owed is not always clear under New Jersey law, particularly, if the claimed injury does not fall within the analysis of traditional premises liability law. In Peguero v. Tau Kappa Epsilon, 2015 N.J. Super. LEXIS 9 (App. Div. 2015), the Appellate Division, in a published decision, had to decide whether a fraternity owed a party attendee a legal duty to prevent him from harm from the criminal act of another shooting and injuring him.

The plaintiff Peguero attended a large party hosted at a private residence rented by several fraternity members. After consuming several drinks, the plaintiff tried to assist a friend involved in an argument. During that altercation, the plaintiff was shot and wounded by an unknown assailant, who has never been identified. There was no evidence that the fraternity had any prior incidents involving guns on the premises or involving violent criminal behavior.

Plaintiff sued the fraternity and its members, claiming that it was negligent. The defendant fraternity argued that there was no evidence showing that it was reasonably foreseeable that plaintiff would be shot by a third party while attending this event. Hence, the defendants breached no legal duty to plaintiff under the circumstances. The trial court agreed and granted summary judgment, dismissing the complaint.

The Appellate Division noted that there are no reported cases in the State that have addressed the scope of duties that may be owed by a college fraternity or its officers or members to protect their guests from violent conduct that may occur at the social event. After reviewing the facts, the appeals court found that the defendant did not breach any duty owed to the plaintiff.

The court applied the nontraditional analysis of premises liability in reaching this determination. It focused on: “the relationship of the parties; the nature of the attendant risk; the opportunity and ability to exercise care; and the public policy considerations.” This is a fact intensive analysis.

In analyzing these factors, the Appellate Division found that the shooting of the plaintiff was not reasonably foreseeable. There was no previous pattern of criminal conduct at the fraternity house that would have alerted its members that an unknown assailant would pull a gun and shoot another guest. No witness saw the shooter with a gun or acting belligerently or dangerously prior to the shooting.

The appeals court did make it clear that it was not absolving a fraternity or its members from any criminal acts that occur on its premises. Acts such as hazing or sexual assaults have occurred at fraternities. However, under the facts of this case, there was simply no basis to impose civil liability upon the defendants.