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Lawsuit: Fraternity hazing killed former Wharton golf standout

TAMPA — A violent night of Hell Week hazing killed 19-year-old Harrison Kowiak of Tampa, according to a wrongful death lawsuit filed by his parents.

Kowiak, a Wharton High School graduate with a golf scholarship at Lenoir-Rhyne University, suffered trauma to his head during a pledge week activity for Theta Chi fraternity.

A complaint filed Friday by the Kowiak family's attorneys, Justin Leto of Miami and David Kirby of Raleigh, N.C., holds the university, the fraternity and 21 fraternity brothers responsible for his sudden death.

The lawsuit filed in Durham County, N.C., offers new details about what happened the night of Nov. 17, 2008, as the brothers took Kowiak and one other pledge to an open pasture outside of Hickory, N.C.

According to the complaint:

Kowiak, a sophomore, and another pledge were instructed by the fraternity brothers to meet at a dorm wearing light-colored clothing.

At 10:30 p.m., a fraternity brother arrived in a flatbed truck and told them to sit in the back, blindfolded.

The two were driven to an off-campus farm, where they were led, still blindfolded, down a winding dirt road to an open field.

There, the blindfolds were removed and Kowiak and his co-pledge got their mission.

They were to retrieve "sacred fraternity rocks," a symbol of initiation to Theta Chi fraternity. The rocks, they were told, were at the end of a dark field. All they had to do was get to them.

But between them and the rocks, the lawsuit says, was a gauntlet of other students dressed in black, who would shove and push and tackle them as they tried to reach their goal.

The brothers called it "bulldogging" — a long-standing tradition during Hell Week, the lawsuit says.

At 160 pounds, Kowiak was up against men who weighed as much as 250 pounds and played on the university's football team.

One fraternity member told police the purpose of the activity was to "see what they were made of," according to the lawsuit.

At some point Kowiak could no longer stand. Instead of immediately calling 911, the lawsuit says, the fraternity brothers told him to get up and walk — which he did, until he collapsed.

Finally, the brothers loaded him into one of their cars and drove them to Frye Regional Medical Center. Kowiak, the lawsuit says, suffered seizures along the way.

While in the car, one of the brothers phoned 911 and told the operator they were bringing someone in who had a head injury. When they reached the hospital, the lawsuit says, the brothers told the staff that Kowiak was hurt during an on-campus flag football or basketball accident.

But the doctors evaluating Kowiak said his injuries were too serious for them to treat and life-flighted him to Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte.

He died the next day, Nov. 18. A medical examiner concluded he died from blunt trauma to the head. His body was covered with bruises and abrasions.

"This case is a tragedy and that tragedy was compounded by the deception that occurred after Harrison was hurt," Leto said in a prepared statement.

The lawsuit quotes at length from the anti-hazing policies of the state of North Carolina, the national Theta Chi fraternity, the university and Lenoir-Rhyne's Delta Chi chapter, all of which define and ban hazing.

According to the lawsuit, the bulldogging night was just one of several "hazing" activities Theta Chi required of its pledges.

In another, the pledges were taken to the edge of a dam blindfolded and told to jump. As they prepared to follow orders, the brothers stopped them.

And in a third instance, pledges were told to rummage through dumpsters to find balls with "Theta Chi" written on it.

"We believe Harrison's death was part of a long history of hazing at this fraternity," attorney Kirby said. "There is absolutely no reason for this dangerous activity to still be occurring in this day and age, and it needs to be stopped immediately."

The suit accuses the university and the fraternity of gross negligence and willful and wanton conduct. The 21 fraternity brothers are also accused of civil conspiracy.

The suit says that as a direct result of their actions, Harrison Kowiak suffered "severe physical pain, emotional pain and suffering,'' that the Kowiak family lost such intangibles as their late son's "protection, care, assistance, companionship, comfort, guidance'' and the family incurred medical, funeral and burial expenses.

Neither Theta Chi International executive director Dale Taylor nor Lenoir-Rhyne spokesman Mike Langford could be reached for comment Friday evening.

The son of Tampa couple Brian and Lianne Kowiak, Harrison Kowiak graduated from Wharton High in 2007, a standout golfer with a promising academic future.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

Lawsuit: Fraternity hazing killed former Wharton golf standout 07/31/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 31, 2009 11:30pm]
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