Heidemans’ case against frat nears trial

Attorneys for the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity are hoping a Butte County judge will call off a trial scheduled to start Aug. 19. The civil suit was filed by the family of Chico State University student Adrian Heideman, who died in October 2000 after binge drinking and then being left unattended in the frat house basement.

In December 2001, eight fraternity brothers agreed to pay $500,000 to the Heideman family. As part of the settlement agreement, the men also agreed to testify for the plaintiffs in the jury trial, said Alex Grab, one of the three San Francisco attorneys handling the case.

“No amount of compensation is sufficient” for the loss of a son, Heideman’s mother, Edith Heideman, said in a telephone interview from Palo Alto.

The freshman was only 18 when he decided to join Pi Kappa Phi, the Chico chapter of which has since disbanded. He had survived childhood cancer and was excited to be in college and rushing the frat. When it came time to be initiated, the suit states, Heideman and other pledges were each ordered to consume a pitcher of beer and a bottle of blackberry brandy so they would have to depend on their frat brothers as part of a “bonding” experience. Instead, when Heideman passed out, he was left alone in a basement bedroom and choked to death after vomiting.

Grab said his firm has gathered much information it plans to introduce at the trial, including another Pi Kappa Phi chapter referring to the Chico chapter as the real-life “Animal House,” and a 1993 risk management bulletin from the national leadership warning against leaving the side of anyone who’s passed out drunk, since he or she could choke on vomit. “It’s clear that the fraternity knew precisely about the risk of death and the very type of death that Adrian suffered,” Grab said.

Edith Heideman said she feels for the fraternity members named in the suit (three of them were sentenced to 30 days in jail after pleading to criminal charges) and realizes that had things gone differently her son would have been one of them. “This is not about greed and vindictiveness,” she said. “I do feel that there was a moral and legal responsibility and culpability.”

Adrian Heideman’s parents weren’t even aware that hazing went on, and have made a mission of informing other parents and students. “I am trying to get some meaning out of this meaningless death,” Edith Heideman said.

The attorneys for Pi Kappa Phi filed a motion for summary judgment, which Judge Roger Gilbert is now considering.

Michael Osborne, the San Francisco-based attorney for national Pi Kappa Phi, said that even if the judge decides not to dismiss the case, “We’re prepared for trial.”

“The national fraternity is not liable for the day-to-day activities of the frat,” he said, adding that out-of-state case law supports this contention.

Osborne also refuted plaintiff attorneys’ claims that at least five people have died nationwide on Pi Kappa Phi’s watch. "It’s very wrong and it’s very misleading," he said. In one case, he said, a sober driver wrecked a van, and in another a woman died after binge-drinking at several parties but having only a little alcohol at a Pi Kappa Phi party. "We feel very offended when they try to say that we are responsible for these deaths."