The Illinois Supreme Court cleared the way Friday for a family's wrongful death lawsuit against officers and members of Northern Illinois University's Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity, where a freshman pledge from Palatine died in 2012 after an alcohol-fueled hazing.
The court upheld a lower-court ruling reinstating the suit filed by the family of 19-year-old David Bogenberger. The high court also ruled sorority women present during the party on Nov. 1, 2012, can be held civilly liable, Bogenberger family attorney Peter Coladarci said.
"This decision takes a step in the right direction," said David's mother, Ruth Bogenberger. "We feel the tide is changing. In the past, hazing was looked on as something that happens. Nobody seemed to want to do anything to change it. ... We hope the ruling is an instrument of change."
While Friday's ruling won't solve all the problems related to hazing, Bogenberger and her husband, Gary, hope it will lay a foundation the next case will build upon.
"We're very pleased the Supreme Court found they (the fraternity members and the sorority women) can be held accountable," Gary Bogenberger said.
In May 2015, 22 Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity members were convicted of misdemeanors in a Sycamore County courtroom. Five former fraternity officers pleaded guilty to reckless conduct in exchange for 24 months of conditional discharge, a type of probation. Each was also ordered to perform 100 hours of community service and pay a $1,000 fine.
Seventeen other former members pleaded guilty to misdemeanor hazing and were sentenced to two years of court supervision, plus 100 hours of community service and $500 fines. None of the women were criminally charged.
Bogenberger, a triplet who graduated from Palatine High School, was among the Pi Kappa Alpha pledges under the impression that attending the unsanctioned party at the off-campus fraternity house and participating in a drinking game was a requirement for admission, according to the complaint.
As part of the hazing, pledges were required to answer nonsensical questions and drink vodka. Those who refused were ridiculed. Over about 90 minutes, authorities say the pledges consumed three to five cups of vodka in multiple rooms. As the pledges began to lose consciousness, they were given "vomit buckets," brought to various places in the house and positioned so they would not choke if they vomited, authorities said.
Bogenberger was found unresponsive the next morning with a blood-alcohol level about four times the legal driving limit of .08 percent, authorities said.
After Bogenberger's death, Pi Kappa Alpha International Fraternity suspended the NIU chapter's charter and its former members. The university announced charges against the fraternity and 31 students for violating NIU's Student Code of Conduct, which prohibits hazing in all forms. NIU subsequently removed the fraternity as a recognized student organization.
The Bogenberger family's wrongful death lawsuit was dismissed in Cook County in December 2014. They appealed, and the Illinois Appellate Court reinstated the suit in 2016.
Coladarci said Friday's ruling could serve as a deterrent for other young people.
He anticipates a civil trial could begin in about 18 months.
"I don't recall there being a state supreme court that has considered this issue as directly," said Coladarci, who described the ruling as a "powerful statement" that he expects "other courts will be influenced by and follow."