RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A confrontation over his failure to buy fast-food biscuits may have led to the death of a 19-year-old Clemson University fraternity pledge, who plunged to his death from a bridge into rocky, shallow water, his parents say in two civil lawsuits filed Monday that seek at least $50 million in damages.
Each lawsuit filed Monday in the death of 19-year-old Tucker Hipps seeks $25 million plus punitive damages. In addition to Clemson, the lawsuits name the national Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity and three individual fraternity members.
In a statement emailed to The Associated Press by their attorney, Hipps’ parents call their son’s death “a senseless and avoidable tragedy. The culture of hazing and inappropriate conduct by social fraternities must be stopped. Universities and fraternities must make change from within to protect their own. … Tucker lost his life, but we must not let it be in vain.”
The lawsuits filed by Cynthia Hipps and Gary Hipps Jr. lay out in detail the last hours of the their son’s life, beginning with orders to buy biscuits for his fraternity brothers and ending with the fatal fall.
Authorities say Hipps was on a pre-dawn run with members of Sigma Phi Epsilon when he disappeared Sept. 22, 2014. His fraternity brothers noticed him missing at breakfast, and called police about eight hours later, they said.
Searchers found his body in rocky, shallow water below a bridge over Lake Hartwell. He had fallen head-first.
The lawsuits say fraternity brothers ordered Hipps to bring 30 fast-food biscuits, 30 hash browns and 2 gallons of chocolate milk to the fraternity before an early-morning run, but he said he didn’t have enough money.
During the run, one of the fraternity brothers “confronted Tucker about the pledges’ failure to bring the breakfast that had been demanded of them,” the lawsuits say. The two had a confrontation, and “Tucker went over the railing of the bridge into shallow waters of Lake Hartwell head first,” the lawsuits say.
One member shined a flashlight into the water, while others ran to the other side of the bridge, the lawsuits say. The members and pledges then ran back to campus, they say.
It was seven hours after the run before one of the defendants reports to campus police that Hipps is missing, according to the lawsuits.
Hipps wasn’t intoxicated or under the influence of any drugs while on the run, the lawsuits say.
The legal actions also say that the fraternity members asked Clemson University for permission for the 5:30 a.m. run, which the lawsuits say is prohibited by the hazing policies of both the national fraternity and the school.
When the school didn’t respond, the members interpreted that to mean they had permission for the run, the lawsuits say.
In addition, the lawsuits also say that the local chapter had learned at least two days before Hipps’ deaths that Clemson planned to punish fraternities “for unprecedented conduct issues over the course of the first three weeks of school” and that the problematic issues were “hazing and sexual misconduct.”
The school planned to take action the evening of Sept. 22, the day Hipps died, the lawsuits say.
Law enforcement authorities have said their case in Hipps’ death remains open.
Both Clemson and the national fraternity said in emails that they had not received the lawsuits. University spokeswoman Cathy Sams said it’s school policy to not comment on pending litigation.
Brian Warren Jr., chief executive officer of the national fraternity in Richmond, Virginia, said he would “be back in touch” after he sees the lawsuits.
The Clemson website says the school held administrative hearings in November 2014 and again in January to “consider Sigma Phi Epsilon’s alleged involvement in incidents that occurred during the new member process that the chapter held in the fall of 2014.”
The fraternity was found to be in violation of regulations involving alcohol, hazing, harm to person, failure to comply with official request, disruption of community and ethical standards, and student organization conduct, the website says.
Clemson suspended the fraternity’s organizational recognition until December 2019.