The parents of a 19-year-old Washington State University student who died of alcohol poisoning in November 2019 are suing the school and the fraternity he sought to join, alleging he was pressured to drink an alarming amount of liquor as part of a hazing ritual.
Sam Martinez grew up in Bellevue, loved to play sports and planned to study business and entrepreneurship at WSU. Before finishing his first semester, however, he died in the Alpha Tau Omega house in Pullman after he and another “pledge” endeavored to finish a half-gallon of rum, cheered on by fraternity members, according to a 35-page lawsuit filed Friday in King County Superior Court.
Martinez lost consciousness within about two hours of drinking the rum on the night of Nov. 11, but no one called 911 until 8:30 the next morning, “when it was far too late to save his life,” the lawsuit states.
The suit alleges WSU, Alpha Tau Omega and specific members of the fraternity’s Pullman chapter bear responsibility for Martinez’s death, which the Whitman County coroner ruled an accident. The suit was accompanied by a scathing opinion piece in the Seattle Times written by Martinez’s mother, Jolayne Houtz.
“The college fraternity system is long overdue for the kind of reckoning many other American institutions now face for enabling and perpetuating violence, injustice and destructive behavior,” Houtz wrote. “Fraternities – and the universities and corporate entities that profit from them – must face the same scrutiny and be held accountable for failing to protect the young people in their care.”
Alpha Tau Omega, headquartered in Indianapolis, didn’t respond to messages seeking comment on Friday. In an email, WSU spokesman Phil Weiler said the university doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
The suit seeks unspecified damages for “wrongful death, pre-death pain and suffering, fear of impending death and lost earning capacity.” Houtz wrote that she and her husband, Hector Martinez, are suing “to learn the full truth about what happened to Sam, to seek justice and to prevent other families from living through the hell of losing their child to hazing.”
The suit alleges Martinez’s death followed a series of dangerous hazing activities sanctioned by the fraternity, including camping trips where pledges were tackled or beaten up as part of a “game” and “numerous episodes of excessive alcohol or drug abuse activities.”
Pledges also were quizzed about Alpha Tau Omega’s history and forced to eat raw onions if they answered incorrectly, the lawsuit states.
A week before Martinez’s death, the chapter hosted a “Blackout Date Dash” event that involved handcuffing fraternity and sorority pledges together and locking them in a room. According to the lawsuit, the key to the handcuffs was at the bottom of a bottle of vodka that each pair had to consume.
Houtz called for more transparency and oversight of university Greek systems, including “real enforcement” of hard alcohol bans when students under 21 are present. She also called for hazing to be made a felony, rather than a misdemeanor, and said fraternities and sororities should not begin recruiting until sophomore year, when students are “more established” in their school environments.
Students at various WSU fraternities and sororities have been severely injured in falls, sexual assaults and other incidents involving drugs or alcohol, but Greek organizations largely have been allowed to self-regulate.
In 2016, two student-run organizations, the Interfraternity Council and the Panhellenic Council, canceled all social events for a semester, citing concern over the number of “assaults, rapes, falls and hospitalizations due to the overuse of alcohol and/or drugs by Greek members in the community.”
In response to Martinez’s death in January, the IFC announced new education and reporting requirements, as well as a ban on liquor at fraternity houses and fraternity-sponsored events.
“Fraternities and universities have an unhealthy, symbiotic relationship that leads universities to look the other way despite a pervasive pattern of fraternity misconduct,” Houtz wrote. “Universities know that Greek life appeals to prospective students and helps them maintain connections with wealthy alumni who support their alma maters.
“Local chapters generate revenue for their national parent organizations, which carefully structure the chapters to evade creditors when tragedy strikes. These organizations have banded together to form a fraternity industry that lobbies against reforms and counts powerful friends in high places, from members of Congress to billionaire businessmen.”
WSU recently reached an agreement with Alpha Tau Omega for a six-year suspension, with the fraternity admitting it violated WSU’s rules against hazing, reckless endangerment and providing alcohol to minors.
“In six years, Sam would be 26 years old, launching the business career he dreamed of, maybe thinking about marriage and children,” Houtz wrote. “And in six years, ATO can return to WSU and do it all over again to someone else’s son – unless we mandate real changes now in the fraternity system and the industry that it bankrolls.”
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