Parents of dead student sue MIT, Delta Upsilon

Parents accuse parties of negligence in the 2008 death of Robert Wells, who fell out of a window

The parents of deceased MIT student Robert M. Wells ’08 sued MIT and the Delta Upsilon fraternity on May 21, 2010, alleging 26 counts of wrongful death.

Two years ago, on Saturday, March 1, Wells plunged five stories from the DU fraternity house at 526 Beacon Street to his death. He was a senior in course IX, Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and a brother of DU.

The lawsuit, filed by Michael and Laura Wells in Suffolk County Superior Court, says that Wells sustained “massive injuries including blunt impact to his head, skull fractures, lacerations and contusions of his brain, subarachnoid hemorrhage, etc.” as a “direct and proximate result of both DU and MIT’s negligence” and “failure to correct or warn the condition,” of Wells’s living quarters. He opened the window adjacent to his bed for the “purpose of allowing cold air into his bedroom.” Shortly thereafter, around 5:45 a.m., he was pronounced dead.

The Wells’ allege that the house’s heating system “was notoriously difficult to control” and “was controlled by one unreliable thermostat,” so brothers “would often open the windows in winter months in an effort to get comfortable and to control the temperatures in their bedrooms.”

“None of the windows on the upper floors of the fraternity house contained screens, bars, locks, or other safety devices,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit alleges that “as a condition to remaining a recognized and sanctioned fraternity at MIT …[DU] was required to submit to and pass annual inspections of the subject fraternity house, conducted by MIT.” MIT’s response to the suit denies this.

Ernest C. Sabine ’67, Chair of MIT’s Association of Independent Living Groups, said, “I have no knowledge or information about this lawsuit so I can neither offer answers nor provide comments.

Sabine said ”the AILG “offers an accreditation process review of all living groups within the MIT Fraternity, Sorority, and Independent Living Group community, providing a multi-dimensional evaluation of the health of each MIT FSILG chapter.” In addition, the AILG’s Safety, Licensing, and Inspection program assists independent living groups maintain a safe living environment and pass building inspections and licensing requirements.

The Wellses also allege additional harm, including conscious pain and suffering and “loss of consortium,” a term referring to “loss of a wife’s society, companionship, and services,” according to Ballentine’s Law Dictionary.

In their responses filed with the Court, both MIT and DU have denied or dismissed all allegations. MIT remains “without knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief as to the truth” of several claims and DU similarly has dismissed multiple counts on the grounds of lack of evidence.

DU additionally claims that claims of habitability are barred from wrongful death suits by Massachusetts law, and that DU’s officers and directors are immune from liability. Robert Wells was “more than 50 percent at fault in causing the alleged injuries,” DU said.

DU and MIT both cite the Mass law limiting liability of charitable organizations to $20,000. Both MIT and DU are charities.

Director of the MIT News Office Nathaniel W. Nickerson said that MIT declines to comment on pending litigation.

The case remains active, and various motions will be due in the coming months. A trial date could be more than a year out.