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Negligence is a common-law doctrine, consisting of three essential elements: (1) a legal duty owed by one person to another, (2) a breach of that duty, and (3) damages proximately resulting from the breach. To establish liability, a plaintiff must prove the existence and violation of a duty owed to him by the defendant. It is fundamental that the existence of a legally cognizable duty is a prerequisite to all tort liability. The existence of duty is a question of law for the court to decide from the facts surrounding the occurrence in question. Generally, a person is under no legal duty to control the conduct of another, even if the person has the ability to do so, unless there exists a special relationship between them.
The decedent, George Rocha, Jr., a 21-year-old college junior and a fraternity member, consumed some beer at a fraternity crawfish boil, then went to a local swimming spot, where members climbed to the top of cliffs overlooking the river. Some dove into the river from the cliffs; after being encouraged, the decedent did the same. He could not swim, and drowned. His parents sued for wrongful death arising out of alleged negligence. The trial court found that the fraternities owed no duty to the decedent and the parents had not pleaded facts that would establish any specific duty. The parents appealed.
Under the circumstances, could the fraternity be held liable for wrongful death?
The court affirmed the trial court’s judgment, holding that the fraternity did not have a legal duty such that a cause of action for negligence can be maintained. According to the court, there was no evidence that the trip to the swimming spot was organized or planned by the fraternity. Simply because a group of individuals who were members of the same social organization went together on a social outing did not make the outing an activity of the organization.