Fairleigh Dickinson University is not liable for the death of a junior who fell from a fourth-floor dorm window in 2005 after a night of heavy drinking, and won’t have to pay his parents a prior jury award of $260,000, a state appeals court has ruled.
An appellate decision reversed a Morris County jury verdict last year that found the college and student, Keith Orzech, 21, were equally responsible for his death in 2005. Instead, a three-judge panel ruled the university in Madison-Florham Park has immunity from liability under state law.
As a nonprofit educational institution, the college is protected under the state’s “Charitable Immunity Act” from being sued by one of its beneficiaries, in this case a student, for the accidental death, the appellate ruling states. Such a ‘charitable’ organization may be negligent and still have immunity, so long as its conduct was not willfully malicious, the ruling states.
While the college failed to enforce its alcohol policies at the time of the death, Orzech’s drinking also violated those policies and “does not negate Orzech’s status as a beneficiary” of FDU, the ruling states.
“His misconduct should not provide a basis … to defeat the immunity,” the ruling states.
The Madison-Florham Park campus, with 1,500 resident students, allowed alcohol consumption by those of legal age, with certain limitations, in the dorm where Orzech, an aspiring film editor from Massachusetts and a resident assistant, was housed.
Orzech shared a suite with another resident adviser, and the pair hosted a drinking party on the night of June 30, 2005. Orzech passed out in the common area of the suite and friends carried him to bed about 2 a.m. He is believed to have fallen from the window sometime before 9 a.m. His blood-alcohol level was 0.16, twice the state’s legal limit for intoxication by drivers. Orzech’s body was found by a landscaper at 1:45 p.m. on July 1, 2005.
In a civil trial in 2008, FDU’s attorney argued Orzech violated rules that prohibited excessive drinking, consumption in the presence of underage students, purchase of grain alcohol, and his responsibility as a resident assistant to enforce the rules.
Epstein, the family’s attorney had argued the university failed to properly enforce its alcohol policies on the campus. A jury awarded $520,000 in total damages, but found that each side was equally at fault for Orzech’s death and awarded Orzech’s parents half, $260,000. FDU appealed on the “charitable immunity” basis, and the appellate court agreed.
“FDU’s wrongdoing in this case was either that it did not have in place an adequate alcohol policy for its students or it did not adequately enforce the policy it did have. Either way, the wrongdoing rose to no higher a level of culpability than negligence,” the ruling states.
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