Wrongful death case against N.C. university, security director tossed

Attorney says court filing didn't have enough facts to support a legal case for negligence

June 04--GREENSBORO -- A Guilford County Superior Court judge on Wednesday dismissed the alleged hazing case against High Point University and its head of HPU security, Jeffrey Karpovich, but allowed the case to proceed against Michael Qubein, former student Marshall Jefferson and the Delta Sigma Phi fraternity.

The hearing was held at the Guilford County Courthouse in Greensboro before Judge Susan Bray. Robert Tipton was a junior at HPU from Memphis, Tenn., when he died in 2012 at a Jefferson's off-campus apartment. Michael Qubein, son of HPU president Nido Qubein, is a former university student who was allegedly "pledge master" for the fraternity.

Tipton's mother, Deborah Tipton, alleges that her son's death was the result of being "violently assaulted and battered" in a fraternity hazing incident. A state medical examiner ruled that Tipton, who was pledging Delta Sigma Phi, died from an overdose of prescription drugs. Deborah Tipton hired a forensic pathologist who sought to refute the finding and claimed that her son died after suffering blunt force trauma to the head.

Deborah Tipton's attorney, Drew Brown of Greensboro, said after the hour-long hearing that he will proceed with the case against Qubein, Jefferson and the fraternity. This is a civil case, and no criminal charges have been filed in Tipton's death.

Attorneys for Jefferson and the fraternity didn't seek a dismissal in the case heard Wednesday.

Brown said that he will appeal Bray's decision to dismiss the case against HPU and Karpovich. But by statute, the appeal would be taken up "at the conclusion of the trial court matter," Brown told the High Point Enterprise.

Brown said that he anticipates a trial date against the remaining defendants will take place this winter.

HPU issued a statement that the university is "gratified by the court's decision to dismiss the case against High Point University and our director of security, Jeff Karpovich. We take the safety of our students very seriously and are committed to providing a safe and secure learning environment. Robert Tipton's death at an off-campus residence was tragic, and we are sorry for his loss, but we strongly rejected the basis of the lawsuit."

Tipton's mother attended the hearing but declined to comment. During the hearing, the arguments about whether the case could proceed against HPU and Karpovich centered on whether they had a "legal duty" to Tipton as an adult-age student.

Attorney Mel Garofalo of Charlotte, who represented the university and Karpovich, said the court filing on behalf of Tipton didn't have enough facts to support a legal case for negligence. Citing several previous North Carolina court rulings, Garofalo argued that HPU and its employees didn't have a legal duty to protect Tipton in the circumstances surrounding his death, which took place off campus and not during a university-sanctioned event.

Garofalo told the court that HPU and Karpovich weren't acknowledging that the presentation of the case for Tipton happened as his estate's attorneys present it. But even if it did, HPU and Karpovich still wouldn't have had a legal duty and civil liability.

But Brown was incredulous about the argument on behalf of HPU and Karpovich.

"High Point University's position today is no matter how dangerous or reckless the atmosphere for students, they are not legally responsible," Brown told the court.

Brown said that former employees told the university "on a weekly basis" that a dangerous atmosphere was being created on campus by not addressing the issue of hazing through Delta Sigma Phi.

The attorney for Qubein, John Spainhour of Asheville, argued that his client didn't commit an act of violence in the incident that resulted in Tipton's death. Since Qubein wasn't there, he should be dismissed from the legal action, Spainhour told the court.

This content continues onto the next page...