Family of LSU fraternity pledge who died after chugging 190-proof liquor in hazing ritual gets $6.1 million verdict



Stephen and Rae Ann Gruver sit in a House committee room behind a photo of their son, 18-year-old Maxwell Gruver, a Louisiana State University freshman who died with a blood-alcohol content six times higher than the legal limit for driving in what authorities say was a hazing incident, in Baton Rouge, La., on March 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte, File)

The family of an 18-year-old Louisiana State University fraternity pledge, whose hazing-related alcohol death after being forced to chug 190-proof liquor prompted changes to the law in two states, will get a $6.1 million settlement in a lawsuit stemming from the case.

A jury awarded the verdict last week to Stephen and Rae Ann Gruver, the parents of Maxwell Gruver. Their lawyer told Law&Crime that the settlement goes a long way to help the couple, who started the Max Gruver Foundation, which includes talking to college and high school students around the country about the dangers of hazing.

“The verdict sends a strong message to hazers or would-be hazers,” said Don Cazayoux. “This is going to give the Gruvers another tool in their arsenal during their campaign to stop hazing.”

Guver died from alcohol poisoning in a hazing ritual on Sept. 14, 2017. He and other pledges were quizzed on the fraternity and the Greek alphabet, pelted with hot sauce and mustard, and forced to do “planks” and “wall sits.”

Wrong answers to the older fraternity brothers’ questions were met with the penalty of being forced to chug hard liquor. Gruver’s pledge brother could hear him messing up the Greek alphabet and a member of Phi Delta Theta making him drink repeatedly.

An autopsy showed Max died of “acute alcohol intoxication with aspiration” and had a blood alcohol content of .495, more than six times the legal intoxication level for driving. Ten fraternity members would later be arrested and charged criminally.

One was convicted of negligent homicide and received a suspended sentence of 2 1/2 years. Two served jail time for misdemeanor hazing after pleading no contest. A fourth was not prosecuted.

The advocacy of Max’s family has spurred the Louisiana legislature to take action. In May 2018, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards signed the Max Gruver Act and other bills strengthening penalties for those who do not seek help for someone in distress and requiring colleges and universities to offer hazing education and prevention training and protections to those who report it.

The family filed a federal lawsuit against LSU in 2018, saying the college and local and national chapters of Phi Delta Theta ignored complaints about hazing in the fraternity years before Gruver died, family lawyers said.

It was driven by a “broken model of self-governance and outdated gender stereotypes about young men engaging in masculine rites of passage — in direct violation of Title IX’s prohibition of sex discrimination,” the lawyers said.

“We refuse to accept that the events that caused Max’s death can be explained away as ‘boys being boys,’” said the parents in a statement. “That notion is deeply offensive and wrong-headed. LSU and Phi Delt knew dangerous hazing was taking place at Phi Delt’s LSU chapter for years, yet they continued to allow the chapter and its members to investigate and police themselves. This inaction allowed dangerous hazing traditions at the chapter to persist. We’ve lost Max as a result of those hazing traditions, and his loss has created a devastating impact that reaches not just us but Max’s siblings, family, friends, and all who knew him.”

LSU banned the fraternity from campus until 2033. And in a post on its website, LSU spelled out its policy on hazing and offered resources for reporting it.

“Hazing is illegal and is strictly prohibited at LSU,” the statement said. “No one can ‘consent’ to be hazed, and any allegations of hazing will be investigated by law enforcement and pursued to the fullest extent of the LSU Code of Student Conduct.”

LSU did not immediately return Law&Crime’s request for comment on the verdict.

In January, the parents of a 20-year-old sophomore who died of alcohol poisoning pledging at Bowling Green State University in 2021 settled their wrongful death lawsuit with the school for $2.9 million.

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