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School’s Responsibility In Fall Is Debated University Of Idaho Sued By Student Paralyzed After Frat Parties

When parents drop a freshman off at college, they have a right to expect the university to look out for their child.

That’s the argument made Tuesday by attorneys for Rejena Coghlan, a University of Idaho freshman paralyzed three years ago after getting drunk at fraternity parties and falling from a fire escape. Coghlan, a Spokane native, was 18 at the time of the accident.

Her lawyers said the university failed to provide a safe educational environment and living conditions.

“It’s almost unspoken. You just assume that these are things that are going to be provided to students at the University of Idaho,” said attorney C. Bryan Ulmer III.

By regulating the Greek houses and parties, the university has a legal duty to see that their activities don’t cause harm or break the law, he argued.

“If they’re going to supervise the fraternities on campus, then they have a duty to do it right,” Ulmer said.

Attorneys for the state argue that a university has no legal obligation to police student drinking. Gone are the days when universities served as surrogate parents, checking beds and maintaining curfews, said Richard Greener, special assistant attorney general.

Since students began demanding more autonomy in the 1960s, a university’s responsibilities to serve as a parent have diminished, Greener maintained.

Since the Greek houses are on private land, the university doesn’t have any liability as a landowner either, he said.

After more than an hour of arguments, 2nd District Judge Ida Leggett said she will decide whether to dismiss the case by Sept. 13.

“This case involves tragic events and severe, severe injuries,” she said. Coghlan, now 21 and living in Santa Monica, Calif., was not at Tuesday’s hearing.

She and her family filed the suit last year against the university, the state Board of Education, three fraternities and a sorority.

According to the suit, Coghlan on Aug. 19, 1993, had just been accepted into the Alpha Phi sorority. That night, she went out with other sorority members to two fraternity parties celebrating the end of “rush week.”

Coghlan went to a “Jack Daniels’ Birthday” party at Sigma Alpha Epsilon, then on to a “Fifty Ways to Lose Your Liver” party hosted by Beta Theta Pi and Pi Kappa Alpha. Her lawsuit alleges that she, although underage, was served alcohol at both parties and urged to “drink up” by her new sorority sisters.

UI faculty members Linda M. Wilson and Chris Wuthrich were at the Beta party when Coghlan was there. Wilson saw Coghlan, hugged and congratulated her on her acceptance to the sorority, the suit alleges.

Later that evening, Coghlan fell 30 feet from a fire escape at the sorority house, injuring her spine and leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. Her blood-alcohol level was 0.25 percent, more than twice what the state considers legally drunk. , DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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