In LSU Student Max Gruver’s Hazing Death, Baton Rouge Jury Delivers $6.1 Million Verdict

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A Baton Rouge jury found Wednesday that the parents of an LSU student whose death at a fraternity party launched a statewide campaign against hazing should be compensated $6.1 million.

Stephen and Rae Ann Gruver prevailed in their wrongful death lawsuit, which centered around the loss of their 18-year-old son Max Gruver. It’s not clear how much the Gruvers will actually receive, because they had already settled out of court with most of the defendants before the ruling.

Max was a freshman journalism student vying to become a member of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity when he went through a torturous ritual dubbed “Bible Study.” Members of the fraternity spent nearly two hours grilling Max and other pledges about the frat’s history and forcing them to drink excessive amounts of a high-volume grain alcohol known as Diesel when they answered incorrectly.

Max died of alcohol poisoning and aspiration Sept. 14, 2017, less than 12 hours after the ordeal ended. He had a blood alcohol level of 0.495, more than six times the Louisiana legal limit.

The Gruvers sued LSU, Phi Delta Theta, and multiple fraternity members over their son’s death. By the time of the civil trial this week, they had reached settlements with all defendants except fraternity member Ryan Matthew Isto and his insurance company.

The jury found Isto was 2% at fault for Gruver’s death, which means the family will receive roughly $122,000 after the trial, in addition to the settlements they reached. It’s not clear what those amounts are; in December, the plaintiffs struck an $875,000 settlement with LSU, a university spokesperson confirmed Wednesday.

The jury deliberated more than 4½ hours after listening to three days of testimony in the civil trial against Isto inside the U.S. Middle District Court in Baton Rouge.

The panel of five men and three women determined Max’s parents should be compensated $6 million for the loss of their son and another $100,000 for the pain and anguish Max suffered during the hazing and afterward in the final hours of his life.

“This definitely sends a message to would-be hazers across the country to take pause and think about what you’re doing,” Gruver’s father, Stephen, said outside the courtroom moments after the verdict. “Think about the dangers of hazing, think about how it can harm people and how you’ll be held accountable.”

Jurors agreed that Max Gruver had no culpability in his own death for participating in the hazing incident. They determined Matthew Naquin, a fraternity member convicted of negligent homicide in Max’s death, was 80% responsible. Isto and nine other frat members were each deemed 2% at fault.

The Gruvers reached a settlement agreement with Naquin in 2019.

LSU and Phi Delta Theta were listed as defendants in the family’s original lawsuit, which claimed the university was “deliberately indifferent to the serious and substantial risks male students” faced in the campus’ Greek life.

Allstate will have to pay Isto’s portion of the judgment, according to a Feb. 2 ruling that indicated the 24-year-old Canadian native was covered for legal claims made against him under his parents’ family liability homeowner’s policy.

Jonathon Fazzola, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, asked jurors to award Gruver’s parents $25 million during his closing arguments. Both parents took the stand Wednesday, and Rae Ann Gruver said the loss of their eldest child “changed them forever.”

Since Max’s death, Rae Ann Gruver has toured the country visiting high schools and college campuses on a personal crusade to stop hazing. Stephen Gruver said he visits his son’s gravesite every Friday to pray for and talk to his son.

“They’ll never know how high Max would fly or how bright he could’ve shined,” Fazzola said.

Gov. John Bel Edwards signed the Max Gruver Act into law in 2018, increasing the penalties for hazing in the state.

Isto took the stand and testified for a second time Wednesday. He admitted he went to the Bible Study event in the fall of 2017 with the intent to haze the pledges. Earlier in the week, he admitted he knew hazing was prohibited by LSU as well as the Phi Delta Theta fraternity.

Defense attorney Peter Donovan acknowledged that Isto deserved some of the blame, but he argued Gruver’s legal team sought to pin too much of the liability on him.

Donovan told jurors that while Isto admittedly hazed the pledges, he never meant to harm any of them.

“Were they doing something stupid? Yes,” he said. “But they act like it’s just him….They’re painting this young man as the devil.”

Bible Study was a particularly intense ritual that Isto and Naquin endured when they pledged together in 2016, attorneys said. Frat brothers lined pledges up along the wall in a dark hallway with loud music blaring and strobe lights flickering as part of the hazing ceremony. They quizzed the recruits on the fraternity’s background and ordered them to drink if they couldn’t answer, witnesses testified.

The frat members honed in on Max Gruver when he couldn’t recite the Greek alphabet, attorneys said.

Attorneys painted Isto and Naquin as ringleaders of the fatal affair. Naquin disliked Gruver and told his frat brothers that he didn’t want Gruver to make the cut, witnesses testified. On one occasion, Naquin ripped Gruver’s pledge bid card and tossed it in the trash. Another frat member who supported Gruver gave him a new bid card so he could continue pledging, Isto said.

Isto testified the Bible Study “became shocking” and “aggressive” even to him toward the end. At one point, when Gruver got nauseous, frat members tied a trash bag around his neck that hung down like a bib and continued to ply him with alcohol.

But Fazzola said after Isto stopped participating, he stood at one end of the hall and never intervened.

“You’ve heard plenty of testimony that Mr. Isto played a central role in the Bible Study event. He told you himself what he did,” Fazzola argued. “Helping to run a hazing event where pledges are forced to drink 190-proof Diesel is playing with fire. It’s playing with pledges’ lives.”

Isto and Sean Paul Gott, another frat member, pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor hazing charge in September 2018 and both were sentenced to 30 days in jail.

LSU banned Phi Delta Theta from its campus until at least 2033

Donovan reminded jurors that Naquin was convicted of negligent homicide and insisted he is at least 75% responsible for Max Gruver’s death.

“My assumption is that they didn’t stop because they didn’t appreciate the danger,” Donovan said. “They didn’t appreciate the fact that this could result in the loss of the fine young man (Max Gruver).”

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