An Amherst family whose son died of alcohol poisoning during a fraternity hazing ritual in West Virginia more than two years ago has reached a settlement with the students, fraternity and university responsible for the teen's death.
Nolan Michael Burch, a Canisius High School graduate, was 18 years old and a freshman a West Virginia University when he became a pledge at the Kappa Sigma fraternity Gamma-Phi Chapter. During what was called a "Big/Little" ceremony on Nov. 12, 2014, Burch was instructed to drink a bottle of whiskey by his "Big Brother," Richard Schwartz, also of Amherst , according to the Burches' attorney.
The teen passed out and died two days later after suffering central nervous system depression and cardiopulmonary failure.
While the amount of the settlement is sealed, Lawlor F. Quinlan of Connors LLP, who represented Nolan's parents, called it a "landmark settlement" for the state of West Virginia in a wrongful death case. He also said that the Burches plan to use the money to raise awareness of the dangers of hazing and excessive alcohol consumption by college students – especially the use of hard liquor. After Nolan Burch died, police in Morgantown, West Virginia, reported that his blood alcohol level had been measured at 0.493 percent, more than six times the legal limit indicating intoxication.
The Burch family already has started the NMB Foundation to address hazing and the dangers of alcohol poisoning.
"They understand that college students are going to drink, but the message is that if you see someone who has passed out, get help," said Quinlan. "Don't harm your 'brother,' take care of him."
Quinlan also said Theron J. and Kimberly Burch have reached out to the parents of other students who were victims of hazing.
"They've formed a kind of sad 'fraternity' of their own. They are in contact with every case they see and they support each other," he said.
The settlement approved by a judge in Monongalia County Circuit Court includes payments from several defendants in the lawsuit, Quinlan said. None of the defendants admitted liability but the settlement agreement makes Schwartz responsible for the largest share of the award.
"He was the one who obtained the bottle," Quinlan said.
Schwartz and three other fraternity members dragged Burch by each limb back to a room in the Kappa Sigma frat house and laid him out on a wooden table, the attorney said.
The settlement also finds lesser degrees of financial responsibility for Jordon Hankins, a student and fraternity member who organized the ritual; Kappa Sigma, the university and the people who owned the fraternity house.
Quinlan said the Gamma Phi Chapter has been dissolved, and noted that the chapter had long been a source of problems for the school and community. The Burches' lawsuit states that "Gamma Phi in particular had a reputation for promoting dangerous activities in connection with its events, including hazing and both underage and excessive drinking."
"There were a number of issues over the years, that was part of our case, that it should have been shut down years ago," Quinlan said.