ST. PETERSBURG — The mother of a former Eckerd College student who suffered a fatal fall the morning of her graduation last year is suing the school, saying a party culture on campus was responsible for her daughter’s death.
Rebecca Lavin-Burgher died at Bayfront Health St. Petersburg on May 25, 2018, her 22nd birthday, five days after falling from a ladder inside the Eckerd’s Bininger Theater. She had been trying to make it to the roof to see the sunrise, a graduation day tradition for Eckerd students, according to the lawsuit.
Filed Oct. 25 by the student’s mother, Elaine Marie Burgher, it alleges Eckerd is to blame for the death. It states that the private college “created a culture of drinking and drugs” by permitting drinking and drug use among students, including those under the legal drinking age, both on and off campus.
“The party atmosphere encouraged and supported by Eckerd College is known to students and the public at large,” the lawsuit states, pointing to online college rankings that suggest the same.
In 2018, The Princeton Review ranked Eckerd fourth for “Reefer Madness,” a nod to marijuana use among students. The school is third in the “Lots of Beer” category for the coming year. The Daily Beast called Eckerd “America’s 12th Druggiest College” in 2011, the lawsuit noted.
The filing says Eckerd officials should have been aware “that after ingesting alcohol and/or drugs, students regularly accessed the rooftops of the buildings on campus.”
Prior to her fall, Lavin-Burgher “had consumed alcohol, a bump of cocaine and marijuana,” according to a witness statement included in a St. Petersburg Police Department report. Another student told officers that Lavin-Burgher had been at an on-campus party just before the fall, and police found both beer and champagne at the theater.
However, no autopsy or toxicology testing was performed because Lavin-Burgher died in the hospital, according to the District Six Medical Examiner’s Office. An external body review shows only that she suffered blunt trauma.
Eckerd spokeswoman Robbyn Mitchell Hopewell said in an email Tuesday that the school is taking the lawsuit seriously.
“We have received the lawsuit and read the claims made by the attorneys for the estate of Rebecca Lavin-Burgher on behalf of her grieving family,” Hopewell wrote. "While there are many errors of fact included in the filing, we will respond in due time during the legal proceedings.”
She declined to elaborate on what the fact errors might be.
The mother’s lawyers, Dale Swope and Elizabeth Zwibel of Swope, Rodante P.A. in Tampa, did not immediately return requests for comment. The lawsuit, however, contends there were numerous ways in which Eckerd failed to stop drinking and drug use among students.
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The school approved on-campus dormitory parties when officials “knew or should have known the widespread use of excessive alcohol and drugs were present,” the filing states. Officials “employed a policy and practice of overlooking these parties when they became uncontrolled and unsafe."
Eckerd also encouraged students to talk with professors “over a beer,” the lawsuit states, and both ignored and failed to police use and distribution of drugs on campus. It says the school hosted parties and served alcohol, too.
Lavin-Burgher attended one of them two days before her death, the lawsuit states. It was at an off-campus bar, but Eckerd provided alcohol. The next day, she went to “many on-campus parties" that were authorized by Eckerd, where “alcohol was provided and drugs were permitted.”
It was about 4:45 a.m. on graduation day that Lavin-Burgher arrived at the theater with her sister and friends to join other students on the roof for sunrise, according to the lawsuit. She was almost to the top of a ladder when she fell to the concrete floor about 40 feet below.
The filing alleges the theater doors should have been locked but instead, students had “unfettered access” to the roof. At the same time, the ladder Lavin-Burgher climbed was “unreasonably dangerous.”
The lawsuit asks for trial by jury and damages in excess of $15,000, as well as those allowed by the Florida Wrongful Death Act. That may include reimbursement of medical and funeral expenses.