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By STAFF AND WIRE REPORT
A wrongful death lawsuit has been filed against a Fresno State fraternity because of a hazing incident that led to the alcohol-related death last year of a pledge from Bakersfield.
The San Francisco-based law firm Kerr & Wagstaffe announced Monday it filed the lawsuit against Theta Chi fraternity on behalf of Paul and Diane Dhanens, parents of Philip Dhanens, 18, who died two days after a pledge party Aug. 31.
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Dhanens was a 2012 graduate of Garces Memorial High School in Bakersfield.
The lawsuit names Indiana-based Theta Chi Fraternity Inc., the Beta Upsilon Chapter, and six members of the fraternity.
The Fresno County District Attorney's office filed charges last week against three fraternity members -- Aaron Raymo, 24, Leonard Serrato, 28, and Daniel Baker, 22 -- of misdemeanor hazing and furnishing alcohol to a minor.
A spokeswoman for the Fresno County District Attorney's office said Philip Dhanens' blood alcohol level was 0.40 percent, more than five times higher than California's legal limit to drive.
The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages against the defendants, states that Dhanens participated in Theta Chi's "Bid Night" for prospective new members, according to a press release from the law firm.
During the evening, fraternity officers locked the pledges in a room, provided them with fatal quantities of alcohol and repeatedly chanted "Theta Chi" as the pledges tried to comply with the instructions to finish all of the alcohol.
The release continues:
"Philip was overcome by alcohol, collapsed to the floor, and was then dragged to the fraternity's 'Drunk Room,' where he was abandoned and left helpless for hours before being discovered without a heartbeat and covered in his own vomit."
While the Fresno DA last week said Dhanens' blood alcohol level was 0.40, the press release from the law firm cited a slightly lower BAL of .38 percent. In early October, Fresno County Coroner David Hadden told The Californian that Dhanens had a BAL of 0.36 percent.
A spokeswoman for the Fresno DA said last week that the original blood alcohol estimate had been revised upward. Prosecutors estimated Dhanens consumed some 37 ounces, well more than a quart, of hard liquor in about 90 minutes.
"The fraternity never expressed any concern for Philip or their legal and moral obligations to prevent this senseless tragedy," said Kerr & Wagstaffe partner Ivo Labar. "They must account for their wrongdoing."
An email and phone message left Monday at Theta Chi Fraternity International headquarters in Indianapolis were not immediately returned.
But after learning last week that criminal charges had been filed against three members, the fraternity said it has strict guidelines prohibiting underage alcohol consumption and a strict anti-hazing policy -- and that it expects its chapters and members to uphold these policies and to follow all applicable laws.
Theta Chi also said that it provides education and resources on responsible alcohol use and hazing prevention through its regional and national leadership programs, its website and its anti-hazing hotline.
The fraternity's board of directors voted unanimously last fall to revoke the charter of the Beta Upsilon Chapter at Fresno State.
Dhanens' parents provided short statements in Monday's announcement.
"Every parent's worst nightmare is to receive a call letting them know that their child died," said Paul Dhanens, Philip's father. "No family should have to suffer this kind of loss, and we will work to stop hazing deaths."
Philip's mother, Diane, said she hopes the lawsuit will cause universities to ban freshmen from rushing fraternities and end the use of alcohol in fraternities that admit underage pledges.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages against the defendants.
-- Marc Benjamin of the Fresno Bee and Californian staff writer Steven Mayer contributed to this report.