RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The family of a VCU student killed during a hazing ritual in 2021 is now seeking $28 million in damages from the national organization behind Delta Chi, the fraternity he sought to join.
Oakes died in February 2021 of acute alcohol poisoning after he took part in a “big-little” party at an off-campus fraternity house. The party was a hazing ritual for new pledges seeking to join the fraternity, and three members, including the chapter president, were eventually convicted of hazing.
Now, the Oakes family has filed a civil lawsuit against 11 members of the fraternity, an alumni advisor and the national Delta Chi fraternity itself, alleging their involvement in the wrongful death of Oakes and willful refusal to address a decades-long pattern of misconduct in their local chapters.
The three brothers who were convicted of hazing have cooperated with the Oakes family, agreeing to appear in a documentary that retells the story of Oakes’ death and highlights the dangers of hazing.
But the suit hinges on the role of Aaron Gilbert, known to fraternity members as “fat back,” who served as the VCU chapter’s alumni advisor and has never been named in the criminal cases brought by Richmond authorities.
According to the allegations set out in the suit, Gilbert was hired not by the local chapter but by the national organization, which charged him with overseeing “risk-management responsibilities and issues directly related to the safe operations of the VCU Chapter.”
CLICK TO WATCH: Death Of A Pledge – The Adam Oakes Story
The suit alleges that Gilbert was present on the night of Oakes’ death, was aware of the hazing rituals — including dangerous drinking — that would take place later that night and did nothing to stop them.
Delta Chi National
While the role of the individual members of the fraternity in Oakes’ death is well-known as a result of the cases against them, the suit now calls for the national Delta Chi organization to be held responsible for his death as well.
They write that under the constitution used by Delta Chi national to govern local chapters, the national organization has the power to revoke the charter of local chapters at will and seize all of their assets and that the national organization has explicit rules against hazing, sexual misconduct and alcohol abuse.
Key to their claims against the organization is that Gilbert — and by extension Delta Chi national — was aware that in 2017 the VCU chapter was suspended by the college for hazing and alcohol abuse. They allege that Delta Chi national used Gilbert and their own legal counsel to lobby VCU to reinstate the chapter, which they did in 2018 after a year’s suspension.
And while Delta Chi national permanently revoked the VCU chapter’s charter in the weeks after Oakes’ death, the family writes that this was a ploy to evade responsibility for intentionally turning a blind eye to dangerous hazing rituals.
They cite at least 22 cases of serious misconduct at Delta Chi chapters across the country since 2010, including a series of five sexual assault allegations against members of the VCU chapter relating to alcohol use, none of which were disclosed to new pledges.
Additionally, they claimed that the fraternity “did not revoke the individual membership of the individual defendants or defendant Gilbert… thereby evidencing and in fact ratifying such misconduct.”
This was the only specific point of the complaint that was flatly denied by Delta Chi in a statement to 8News, reading in part, “The Fraternity cooperated fully with law enforcement, permanently expelled all individuals found guilty in Adam’s death and closed the chapter.”
They added that, “What the Oakes family has experienced is something no family should have to endure. The individuals responsible for the death of Adam were found guilty and sentenced in a court of law.”
“The Fraternity Defendants have long known, or should have known, of the unparalleled dangers associated with the Big Brother ritual, hazing, the provision and misuse of alcohol and inept risk and crisis management within the VCU chapter,” they write.
The complaint requests $28 million in compensatory damages, plus treble damages if the jury finds the defendants’ misconduct to be “willful,” for a total of $84 million.
But an attorney for the family tells 8News that no price can be put on Adam Oakes’ life and that “they’ll look to the jury to compensate them fairly for their irrevocable loss.”
An update was made at 4:21 p.m., Wednesday, February 8 to include a statement by the Delta Chi national organization.