Intoxication Bars College Student’s Estate from Wrongful Death Action

The Michigan Court of Appeals recently affirmed a lower court’s ruling that the intoxication of a student participating in a fraternity event prevented the now deceased student’s estate from bringing a wrongful death suit.

The plaintiff’s decedent, a college student who belonged to a fraternity, drowned during a river “float-down” event. The plaintiff sued the defendants for wrongful death, alleging negligence caused his death.

In Estate of Morton by Morton v Theta Chi Fraternity, No. 344556, 2019 WL 6173687 (Mich Ct App, November 19, 2019), the appellate court upheld the trial court’s granting of summary disposition to defendants.

The appellate court reasoned “that regardless of the trial court’s stated reasons for granting their motion for summary disposition, they were entitled to summary disposition as a matter of law under MCL 600.2955a.” The appellate court concluded that “reasonable minds could not differ that [the decedent] had an impaired ability to function due to the influence of intoxicating liquor—indeed, the point is undisputed given plaintiff’s theory that [he] drowned only because he was so intoxicated.”

Further, because the plaintiff “presented no substantively admissible evidence to rebut the presumption of impairment (and instead concede[d] it), it [was] ‘established beyond dispute.’”

And finally, the appellate court held that there was “no genuine issue of material fact that as a result of [the decedent’s] impaired ability, he was 50% or more the cause of the ‘accident or event’ that resulted in his death.”

The “St. Clair River Float Down” began in the 1980s as an annual public event, but was outlawed by the U.S. Coast Guard for approximately 20 years before unofficially resuming in 2009. The “float-down” event was outlawed because the St. Clair River is a “deep” “shipping lane,” with a “fast-moving current,” that “can be very dangerous.”

For more information about the case or the “float-down” event, a copy of the opinion can be found here.

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