Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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NU could face suit in Sunshine death

The parents of Matthew Sunshine are exploring the possibility of suing Northwestern for allegedly playing a role in their son’s death, their attorney confirmed last week in an exclusive interview with The Summer Northwestern.

Attorneys expect to meet with administrators to discuss a settlement before the summer ends, said Robert Clifford, one of two Chicago attorneys representing the family. If an agreement is reached, a lawsuit may never be filed.

“It is undeniable that we are exploring a claim against Northwestern for the death of young Mr. Sunshine,” Clifford said in a phone interview. “We are in contact with the university, both inside and outside counsel, and I have the expectation that a meeting will eventually take place.”

Alan Cubbage, NU’s vice president for university relations, declined to comment on the possibility of a lawsuit. University President Henry Bienen, Vice President for Student Affairs William Banis and General Counsel Thomas Cline did not return phone messages.

Sunshine, a 19-year-old SESP freshman from Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., died of alcohol poisoning last June after attending a party in his dorm, Foster House. Another student discovered him unresponsive the next morning with a blood alcohol level of 0.396.

Jeffrey Sunshine, Matthew’s father, said students persuaded his son to drink, drew pornographic images on his face and took pictures to post on the Internet. Authorities have not confirmed any of that information.

Jeffrey Sunshine declined to comment on the lawsuit or other aspects of his son’s death.

Fellow Foster House residents said Matthew Sunshine was not a heavy drinker.

“He would drink as much as most other people at a party,” Tony Rajah, a Weinberg junior, said in an interview outside his Foster House room earlier this year. “He’d probably have a few drinks but he’d still be sober enough to walk people back to their dorms and things like that.”

Seeking Policy Change

Days after the death, the parents approached Clifford Law Offices with a lawsuit in mind, Clifford said. According to its Web site, the firm won $121 million in settlements in 2008, the most of any group in Illinois.

The family will be seeking a resolution that includes “both economic and non-economic” components, Clifford said. As an example of a non-economic resolution, the attorney cited implementation of the Red Watch Band program, which trains volunteers to act in alcohol-related emergencies.

The program started at New York’s Stony Brook University, where Sunshine’s mother is a geriatric physician. Since then, it has spread to 74 colleges and 30 high schools in 34 states and the District of Columbia, Dr. Jenny Hwang, director of the Center for Prevention and Outreach at Stony Brook, told The DAILY in May.

NU administrators have not contacted the program, said Lara Hunter, a Stony Brook alcohol counselor.

“The Red Watch plan that has been heralded by the Sunshines and is sweeping the country should be implemented at Northwestern and all universities in Illinois,” said Clifford, adding later that policy changes “add some meaning to a profound loss that’s sustained.”

The administration drew criticism from students throughout the past year, including during April’s Associated Student Government presidential campaign, for its policy and its resistance to providing amnesty to students who call authorities about a dangerously intoxicated person.

Associated Student Government Vice President Tommy Smithburg, who is leading a committee evaluating NU’s alcohol policy, said the policy is not perfect, but declined to speculate on whether or not it was a factor in Matthew Sunshine’s death. ASG President Michael McGee also declined to comment.

A policy change cannot be ordered by a judge, but it can be a part of any settlement, Chicago personal injury lawyer Mark Brown said.

Who’s to Blame?

In the days, weeks and months after the death, a debate emerged about who was to blame.

The debate, which took place in dining halls and on comment boards, focused less on the university and more on whether Matthew Sunshine himself or fellow students at the party were responsible.

An e-mail from Banis to all NU students and faculty on June 11, 2008, the day after the death, asked students to view the death as a “reminder of the potentially tragic results” of “risky behavior involving alcohol.”

“This unfortunate death serves as a tragic example of the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption,” Banis said in the statement. “This phenomenon occurs on college campuses nationwide and Northwestern is not immune from such societal issues.”

In NU’s only other public statement on the death, Cubbage said “the university takes violations of its policies very seriously and has established disciplinary procedures to pursue action against any student found to have violated university policies.”

It could be difficult to prove that the university was to blame, experts said.

Although Brown said he is unfamiliar with the case, he called it “complicated” and “difficult.” He said in order for the lawsuit to be successful, attorneys would have to prove that a university official, including a community assistant, knew the drinking was happening and did not stop it. Or, they’d have to prove that the university’s alcohol policy directly caused the death.

“It’s hard to say ‘Yes, there’s a case’ or ‘No, there’s not a case,'” the partner at the personal injury law firm Lane & Lane LLC said. “It’s certainly something that could be and should be and probably is being investigated, but it’ll come down to the facts.”

Under Illinois law, the family has until June 10, 2010, exactly two years after the death, to file a lawsuit. High-profile cases take an average of three years after filing to be resolved in Cook County, Brown said.

Pending Criminal Case

It can take even longer if a criminal case is pending, Brown added.

Former NU student Alexander Krzyston, 22, has been charged with providing Matthew Sunshine with vodka the night he died. Providing alcohol to a minor, a felony charge when it results on death, carries a possible sentence of one to three years in prison and a maximum $25,000 fine.

Police arrested Krzyston on Dec. 16, a judge indicted him on Jan. 27, and the former student pleaded not guilty on Feb. 11.

His next hearing is scheduled for Aug. 3 in Skokie Circuit Courthouse, said Blanca Jara, a spokeswoman for the Cook County Clerk of Court.

A second former student, 21-year-old Rohith Banerjee, agreed to testify in the case against Krzyston in return for prosecutors dropping an identical charge against him.

Prosecutors have declined to say if more students, including the community assistant who was on duty at Foster House the night of the death, will be charged in the death.

Krzyston, Banerjee, the community assistant and other students could be targeted in a separate lawsuit by the family, Clifford said.

“We’re addressing this on the step-by-step basis,” he said. “We’re dealing with the university first.”

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NU could face suit in Sunshine death