The lawsuit against Cornell over the death of Antonio Tsialas ’23 will proceed, a Tompkins County judge ruled almost a year after the October 2019 tragedy.

Courtesy of the Tsialas Family

The lawsuit against Cornell over the death of Antonio Tsialas ’23 will proceed, a Tompkins County judge ruled almost a year after the October 2019 tragedy.

September 17, 2020

Family of Deceased First-Year Has Valid Case Against Cornell, Judge Rules

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The lawsuit against Cornell over the death of Antonio Tsialas ’23 will proceed, a Tompkins County judge ruled Sept. 4.

Tsialas’ family presented a valid case of a “cause of action for negligence and premises liability against the defendant,” Judge Gerald Keene wrote in the ruling.

On Oct. 24, 2019, Tsialas attended a “dirty rush” event at Phi Kappa Psi. Shortly after, Tsialas’ family reported him missing and two days later, emergency personnel found his body at the base of Fall Creek gorge. The first-year’s death spurred a University-led investigation, a wave of Greek life reforms and a private investigation into his death.

“The significance of this ruling cannot be overstated,” Michael Levine, one of the lawyers representing Tsialas’ family, wrote in a press release. “If schools do not take meaningful steps to ensure that hazing is eradicated, they will be held accountable. The Court’s decision puts universities on notice that they can no longer simply sit back and blame hazing on their students.”

As the case continues against Cornell, David Bianchi, one of the lawyers representing the Tsialas’ family, told The Sun that they expect to be taking depositions from President Martha E. Pollack and other administrators “very soon.”

In the almost 11 months since the tragedy, the University has shared few updates on the circumstances surrounding the first-year’s death or the investigations launched immediately after.

Cornell’s silence

During the last academic year, the Cornell University Police Department repeatedly maintained that the investigation into Tsialas’ death was ongoing. It is now unclear whether the CUPD investigation is still active.

Cornell has remained tight-lipped about the investigation; the most information the University gave on its Tsialas investigation was on Nov. 19, 2019, when Pollack said CUPD received over 170 leads on Tsialas’ case.

One month later, Pollack released another statement, writing that CUPD, state and local law enforcement still could not identify what happened between the time Tsialas was last seen at the fraternity party and when his body was discovered at Fall Creek gorge. In the same statement, Pollack outlined a series of Greek life reforms, which required chapters to have third-party monitors at events and implement a University-run roving security team to conduct spot-checks at events.

But since December 2019, Cornell administrators have not released any updates from their police force’s investigation or statements on Tsialas’ death.

Cornell declined a request for comment on Sept. 16 on the CUPD investigation into Tsialas and Phi Kappa Psi. Bianchi told The Sun that Cornell has not shared any of the findings from its CUPD investigation with him or Tsialas’ parents.

“Number one goal was always to get information,” Bianchi said. “We’ve been unsuccessful.”

The lawsuit and trial

In January, Tsialas’ parents filed a lawsuit against Cornell, the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and seven Cornell students, seeking compensation for “the injuries and mental and physical pain, suffering and anguish suffered by their son Antonio Tsialas,” among other things.

The students named in the Feb. 10 amended version of the complaint were fraternity executive board members Andrew Scherr ’20, Daniel Sacher ’21 and Benjamin Schwartz ’22. The updated lawsuit also named Shane Rohe ’21, who allegedly escorted Tsialas to the event, Pietro Palazzolo Russo ’21, the Phi Kappa Psi house manager at the time, and Felipe Hanuch ’22, who the lawsuit said invited Tsialas to the event.

Jack Stettner ’22 was supposedly the fraternity’s risk manager, making him in charge of Phi Kappa Psi’s policies on alcohol use, hazing and hosting unauthorized events, according to the lawsuit. Rush chairman Nolan Berkenfeld ’20 and acting chapter adviser John Jacobs ’90 were the other named defendants in the lawsuit. Scherr, Sacher, Schwartz, Rohe, Russo, Hanuch, Stettner, Berkenfeld and Jacobs did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.

So far, claims with individual defendants have been resolved, but the lawsuit against Cornell will still continue, according to Bianchi.

The Feb. 10 lawsuit alleged that once Tsialas arrived at Robert Purcell Community Center after having dinner with his mother, “a parade of vehicles” from the fraternity arrived to pick up Tsialas and other first-years.

The lawsuit further alleges that the “dirty rush” event was called “Christmas in October,” and was meant to identify first-years who could become potential new members of the fraternity. According to the lawsuit, Phi Kappa Psi fraternity members only invited “suitable candidates” to the event. Tsialas was seen as a “good pledge prospect” for the fraternity, the lawsuit read.

The “Christmas in October” event described in the suit consisted of activities where first-years had to drink ample amounts of alcohol. At the party, there were seven themed rooms where the fraternity conducted these activities, according to the lawsuit.

Through the lawsuit and its proceedings, Tsialas’ autopsy report has also been made public, offering more exact details on the cause of Tsialas’ death. The Tompkins County Health Department declared that he died on Oct. 24 at 10 p.m. primarily from “blunt force trauma injuries including multiple cranial fractures as well as multiple other lethal injuries,” which was attributed to a fall of approximately 100 feet. Additionally, the autopsy report found that Tsialas had “acute alcohol intoxication.”

Cornell’s motion to dismiss the complaint

The University filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit on May 4, arguing that it was not legally obligated to prevent — nor could it be liable for — the “prohibited conduct of private parties.” In the complaint, Cornell described the conduct that happened at the Phi Kappa Psi party as “reprehensible” and “in stark violation” of Cornell’s Code of Conduct, the University’s recognition policy for fraternities and sororities, its anti-hazing policy and New York State law.

Cornell’s motion to dismiss the complaint did not include any findings from its CUPD investigation, but it did submit the findings from a prior investigation into Phi Kappa Psi.

Right before the Oct. 24 party, the fraternity faced a Greek Judicial Board hearing for hosting an unregistered social event on Sept. 26, after the Office of Sorority and Fraternity Life previously prohibited it from doing so because the chapter house had numerous fire code violations.

The Oct. 23 judicial hearing found that there was no unregistered social event, but rather the event was a private birthday party for upperclassmen in the same pledge class. While all members in the fraternity were over the age of 21, one of the members’ siblings — a first-year — visited the chapter house with another first-year.

In an affidavit, OSFL director Kara Miller said that the office did not know beforehand that Phi Kappa Psi planned to host any event on Oct. 24 and the office never received an event registration request. Miller’s affidavit stated that the two first-years had been drinking in Collegetown before they visited the chapter house. The Phi Kappa Psi president and vice president kicked the first-years out after learning that they were present in the house and intoxicated, Miller wrote.

Disciplinary proceedings against Phi Kappa Psi and individual members

Beyond the lawsuit, individual members of Phi Kappa Psi and the fraternity itself underwent code of conduct hearings during the last academic year.

While the Office of the Judicial Administrator charged Phi Kappa Psi members in the fall with code of conduct violations, the campus code of conduct deferrals were delayed until the spring because the Cornell investigation was still ongoing and the Tompkins County District Attorney had not decided on potential criminal prosecutions, according to a June 18 statement from University spokesperson John Carberry.

“The Cornell Police investigation continues, but it was clearly important to address individual student responsibilities before the end of the spring semester so a number of referrals to appropriate campus disciplinary processes were made,” Carberry wrote.

The J.A. had worked on potential code of conduct violations involving Phi Kappa Psi members in the spring and through the summer, aiming to finish the individual cases as quickly as possible, according to Carberry.

Carberry added that the Office of Sorority and Fraternity Life initiated conduct charges against the fraternity. That disciplinary process is still pending, but is expected to be completed soon. Cornell placed Phi Kappa Psi on an interim suspension in November 2019 — Pollack told The Sun then that there was “significant misbehavior” at the dirty rush event.

On Sept. 16, the University also declined a request for comment on the campus code of conduct violations and disciplinary proceedings for Phi Kappa Psi and the individual cases. The status of Phi Kappa Psi and the outcomes of the J.A. and OSFL hearings remain unclear.

Ultimately, Bianchi said he hopes that this lawsuit will tangibly impact hazing culture at Cornell.

“[The] next goal is to change the culture of hazing at Cornell,” Bianchi said, “set up something in their son’s memory.”

Sarah Skinner ’21 contributed reporting.