The parents of a Clemson student who investigators believe died after falling off a bridge last September have now filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the fraternity he was pledging at the time. The suit, which gives a very different narrative than the Oconee County Sheriff’s Office report, claims other frat members were not only present at the time but later tried to cover up their actions that morning.
The lawsuit seeking $25 million in damages names three members of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity as defendants, but South Carolina Radio Network has decided not to repost them due to the seriousness of the accusations and lack of criminal charges at this time. SPE has since been suspended by Clemson officials.
“Tucker Hipps’s death was a senseless and avoidable tragedy. The culture of hazing and inappropriate conduct by social fraternities must be stopped,” Cynthia and Gary Hipps said in a statement released through their attorney. “Universities and fraternities must make change from within to protect their own.”
The three individuals are accused of organizing a pledge run in the early morning hours of September 22. Prior to that run, Hipps — the pledge class president who often acted as liaison between the new and old members– had been told by a fraternity brother to buy 30 biscuits, hash browns, and 2 gallons of milk before the run, the lawsuit stated. Pledges at SPE were often expected to run errands at any hour of the day on behalf of upperclassmen and the fraternity as part of their initiation. The suit claimed Hipps told the brother he did not have the money to buy that much food and was told to raise what he needed from fellow pledges.
Whether intentional or by forgetfulness, Hipps did not get the biscuits, according to the lawsuit. His parents claim that, during the ensuing run, one of the upperclassmen confronted Hipps about his failure. The chastising occurred on the Highway 93 bridge, the suit says, and “subsequently, Tucker went over the railing of the bridge into the shallow waters of Lake Hartwell head first.”
The lawsuit does not say how Hipps fell over the roughly three-foot high wall, although the family claimed SPE has a tradition of pledges being pressured to jump off the bridge and to swim ashore. The suit also states an autopsy of Hipps did not find any signs of alcohol or drugs in his system. The lawsuit also does not identify its sources for the narrative it uses.
After the pledge dropped from the bridge, one of the frat members shined the light from his phone into the lake, the suit states. The other members took the pledges back to campus while the first individual continued shining his light in the water. It was not until seven hours later that another frat member called campus security to report Hipps missing, according to Oconee County Sheriff’s deputies.
Investigators have previously said the frat members told them Hipps fell behind on the run and that none of the students saw him fall. Sheriff Mike Crenshaw had said investigators did not think the death was due to hazing, but he has backed off that position since January.
The lawsuit also names Clemson University as a defendant, saying the school was already planning to punish Greek organizations in response to accusations of hazing and sexual misconduct during the pledge process. SPE sent an email to the school seeking permission to hold the early morning run. The school bans the practice, which is classified as ‘hazing’ under its policies. The lawsuit claims SPE leaders did not get a response and interpreted the silence to mean approval.
Clemson suspended the fraternity about two months ago after a hearing board found violations that occurred during the “new-member education process” that fraternities run in the fall, a school spokeswoman said at the time.