In an unusual legal maneuver, the estate of a Salem woman killed in 2011 when a rental truck plowed into tailgaters at a Harvard-Yale football game has sued the driver’s fraternity and 86 current and former members, claiming they bear responsibility.
The estate of Nancy Barry previously had filed a wrongful death suit against the national offices of Sigma Phi Epsilon, but is now taking legal action against the group’s Yale University chapter and its members after the national fraternity asserted it did not sanction the pregame gathering, the lawyer representing Barry’s estate said Wednesday.
“The national organization is basically disowning them,” Paul Edwards, who filed the civil suit late last month in Superior Court, said of the Yale fraternity members. “We didn’t want to sue the kids, but our hand was forced.”
Representatives for Sigma Phi Epsilon could not be reached for comment.
Edwards said he had never heard of a national fraternity claiming it was not responsible for an event sponsored by a college chapter. He said the fraternity’s insurance company has taken the same stance.
“It’s really a double whammy for the kids,” he said. “Quite frankly, they should be standing by their members.”
Barry, 30, was tailgating with friends when she was struck by a U-Haul truck carrying kegs of beer to the fraternity party. Two others were injured.
Then Yale junior Brendan Ross, a fraternity member, was driving the rental vehicle across a large intramural field used for tailgating when he accelerated, striking the three women before crashing into two parked trucks.
Ross was initially charged with negligent homicide with a motor vehicle, but last February received probation after the charges were reduced to reckless driving. Prosecutors said he lost control of the truck after revving the engine in an effort to disperse the crowd.
Ross passed a field sobriety test after the accident. His lawyer could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Edwards said Barry’s estate is seeking several million dollars in the suit.
In the complaint, Edwards contends the social event was clearly sanctioned by the fraternity, saying the U-Haul was rented “at the direction and for the benefit of the fraternity.”
As a result, the members of the fraternity are liable for Ross’s negligence, the complaint states. A woman injured in the crash, Sarah Short, has filed a similar complaint against the fraternity and its members.
Barry had traveled to New Haven to visit Short, who was a graduate student at Yale. Barry graduated from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in 2003, and aspired to be a fashion designer.
A previous suit, which is pending, named Ross, U-Haul, and Yale as defendants. It claimed that Yale failed to take steps to ensure that people at the event were “reasonably safe from the dangers of moving vehicles” that were likely operated by experienced truck drivers.
A Yale spokesman declined to comment Wednesday.
Edwards said he is hopeful the lawsuit will spur the national chapter to drop its claim that it bears no responsibility for the chapter.
“I would expect many of the members of the fraternity hope that as well,” he said.