Northwestern reaches $2 million settlement with Sunshine family

Brian Rosenthal and Brian Rosenthal

Two years after Matthew Sunshine died of alcohol poisoning in his Northwestern dorm room, University administrators have agreed to a legal settlement with his family, according to court documents provided exclusively to The Daily Northwestern.

The settlement, which does not constitute any admission of wrongdoing, grants $2 million to the family of the 19-year-old SESP freshman who died in June 2008. But the agreement also includes 10 non-economic terms which could drastically change NU’s alcohol policy in the years to come.

Those provisions, laid out in a rider to the settlement agreement, call for NU to renew its commitment to existing campus alcohol rules and review its policy regarding students who call for medical help in alcohol emergencies. Among other terms, the university would also increase funding for academic research on binge drinking and host conferences with leaders from other universities in order to form a unified effort to fight excessive drinking by college students.

(Read the entire rider here).

“Hopefully it’ll be a start,” said Sunshine’s father, Jeffrey, “a start of some sort of change in attitude on college campuses so that what happened to our son never happens again or is so infrequent that it almost never happens again.”

During an hour-long interview in a downtown Chicago office building, the 58-year-old Jeffrey Sunshine carefully explained each piece of the settlement, occasionally veering into impassioned asides on the latest statistics about the dangers of drinking (1,825 college students die each year in alcohol-related incidents and another 599,000 are injured, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism).

He called University President Morton O. Schapiro “courageous” for agreeing to the “unprecedented” non-economic part of the settlement and said he hopes it will affect change at universities across the country.

He added that because NU students are the primary beneficiaries of the agreement, they have a legal right to demand that it is followed. Associated Student Government President Claire Lew, the student body’s official representative, said she intends to work with the administration to do just that.

“I definitely feel that it’s my obligation on behalf of the students to make sure these things are carried out,” the SESP senior said.­­­

University spokesman Al Cubbage released a seven-sentence statement about the settlement and declined further comment.

“As it has on previous occasions, the University extends its sympathies to the family and friends of Matthew Sunshine,” Cubbage said in the statement. “Through its ongoing efforts, including those contained in the agreement with the Sunshine family, Northwestern will continue to work to prevent similar tragedies in the future.”

Cubbage stressed that NU has “for years” employed programs to address alcohol and drug abuse. He said that the University has already started implementing some of the terms of the settlement, but he declined to mention specifics.

The statement represented the administration’s first on-the-record comments about the death since the day after it happened, when Bill Banis, vice president for student affairs, blasted the death as “a tragic example of the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption.”

That “tragic example” started with a drinking game in Foster House on the night of June 9.

According to police reports and interviews with witnesses, Sunshine apparently drank 17 shots of vodka before being helped to his room. When another student discovered his unresponsive body the next morning, Sunshine had a blood alcohol level of 0.396.

The death came less than six years after Music junior Joseph Doyle died of alcohol and cocaine intoxication in the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house.

When Schapiro and Jeffrey Sunshine signed the settlement in May, after more than a year of negotiations and almost exactly two years after Sunshine’s death, they each pledged allegiance to the same goal: never again.

Positive steps

But how effective are the changes prescribed in the settlement, and will they be successful in slowing binge drinking at NU?

Several alcohol policy experts, after being told the specific provisions of the agreement, praised the measures as positive steps toward addressing a complex problem that will require a mix of solutions.

Dr. Steven Galson, a former acting U.S. surgeon general, called each of the components of the settlement “very, very strong.”

The key, Galson argued, is that administrators at various universities need to meet together, acknowledge that excessive drinking is a serious problem and commit to take concrete steps to address it.

Jeffrey Sunshine called the collaboration clause the most important aspect of the agreement because “no school will be able to do this alone.”

But John Knight, director of the Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research at Children’s Hospital Boston, said discussion between universities will have a limited impact.

“I think the colleges already pretty much know how they can limit underage drinking, and a lot of them have it in their policies,” Knight said. “They just have to enforce it.”

In Knight’s latest study, released last month, he and his colleagues reviewed alcohol policies at 11 Massachusetts colleges and found that enforcement is an important element in fighting binge drinking. Most experts agree.

But while the settlement asks NU to “reinforce its commitment to enforcing Illinois Law and campus rules,” it’s unclear what impact the language will have.

Most of the other terms of the agreement are supported by experts, including requesting NU to provide at least $150,000 over three years for academic research into binge drinking at college campuses, to establish an educational website about the dangers of alcohol and to continue to support alcohol-free housing and alcohol-free evening activities.

The settlement also asks NU to establish an annual $5,000 scholarship for an incoming SESP freshman in Matthew Sunshine’s name,and to support the Red Watch Band program, a national initiative launched in response to Sunshine’s death that trains students in how to deal with alcohol emergencies.

‘Expectation’ vs. ‘duty’

But the most contentious part of the settlement is sure to be the provision that calls for NU to review its Responsible Action Protocol.

The policy, implemented last fall, says that students are “generally expected” to call for medical help in alcohol emergencies and that the University “will consider the positive impact of taking responsible action” in those situations.

NU students have for years requested an amnesty policy which removes any possibility of consequences for students that call for help, even if they themselves were drinking underage or had provided alcohol to underage students. The truth is that, in the Responsible Action Protocol, they basically have just such a policy.

“This amnesty that everybody talks about – it’s semantics,” Dean of Students Burgwe
Howard said. “If you do the right thing by taking care of members of our community, the consequences for you are going to be almost nil.”

Administrators are reluctant to move to a full amnesty policy because empirical research supporting such a policy is scant and consequences are necessary for some repeat offenders, Howard explained.

The Sunshine family strongly opposes amnesty. Instead, the settlement advocates tweaking the Responsible Action Protocol in a different direction ­- changing the language from students being “expected” to call for help to them being “obligated” to do so. That is, making not calling for help a reason in and of itself for punishment.

Jeffrey Sunshine believes that if students had a “duty” to call for medical help, his son would be alive.

“I think it is really important. It’s moral. It’s right. It shouldn’t be an expectation. It should be a requirement,” he said. “You see a kid passed out and you don’t call for help, you should be tossed the hell out of this school.”

But Toben Nelson, an assistant professor of public health at the University of Minnesota, said such a policy would have little impact because it means “relying on people who are intoxicated to make good decisions.” Other experts said there is not yet empirical evidence to prove whether the policy would be effective.

The review of the Responsible Action Protocol will be completed by the end of the month, Howard said.

Long road to settlement

Many of the settlement’s provisions will not be implemented by the end of this month, or even the end of this year. Most deliberately extend over several years, seemingly as a way to keep Sunshine’s memory alive.

The agreement itself was the product of a long negotiation prompted by a long investigation, initiated by the Sunshine family just days after the death.

By the end of the summer of 2008, the family had retained the Chicago powerhouse firm Clifford Law Offices. According to its website, the group won more than $121 million in settlements in 2008, the most of any firm in Illinois.

The two partners representing the Sunshine family did not return repeated requests for comment.

Jeffrey Sunshine readily admitted that in the days after the death, he “wanted to take (NU) for every penny” he could. It was his wife, Stony Brook University professor Suzanne Fields, who had the vision to use the settlement as a means of changing NU’s alcohol policy.

The negotiations, launched in the beginning of 2009, focused on the non-economic portions of the settlement, said Jeffrey Sunshine, who refused to comment on the monetary aspect of the agreement except to say that most of the money will be given to charity.

As the talks progressed slowly through the winter and spring, Evanston police arrested two former NU students in connection to the death. Alexander Krzyston and Rohith Banerjee were each charged with providing alcohol to a minor, a felony charge when it results in death.

Prosecutors later dropped the charges against Banerjee in exchange for his testimony against Krzyston, who eventually pleaded guilty to reduced charges in an emotional hearing attended by Sunshine’s parents.

Meanwhile, settlement negotiations picked up dramatically when Schapiro took over for retiring president Henry Bienen in the fall of 2009, Jeffrey Sunshine said.

“No progress was made until Schapiro arrived,” said the father, who enthusiastically praised the new president but declined to comment on Bienen.

The final agreement reflected almost all of the initial requests of the family, Jeffrey Sunshine said, adding that he believes the family could have gotten much more money if it wanted.

While it’s difficult to determine how large a verdict a jury would have delivered, the $2 million settlement is far from the largest in recent NU history. In March 2006, the administration gave $16 million to the family of 22-year-old Rashidi Wheeler, who died on the football practice field in August 2001.

Jeffrey Sunshine said to him, the policy changes in the agreement are far more important than any money gained.

But he added that even knowledge that his son’s death may lead to life-saving policies could not reduce the pain or bring any closure to the ordeal.

“It never closes,” the father said. “It’s not how it’s supposed to happen. Nineteen-year-old boys aren’t supposed to be dead. Our family’s supposed to have four members, not three. His sister is supposed to have a sibling when she grows old, not be an only child.”

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