ABINGDON, Va. (WJHL) — The father of an Emory & Henry College student killed in a 2020 car accident filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the college on May 16.
Court documents obtained by News Channel 11 detail the July 16, 2020 incident that resulted in the death of 20-year-old Gracie LeAnn Dimit. The lawsuit claims that the college’s negligence regarding Greek life activities at school led to Dimit’s death.
“The 500 Crash” That Killed Gracie Dimit
On several roads that wind around Emory & Henry, students participated in what was known on campus as “The 500,” the lawsuit says. The loop hosted myriad rides before the fatal accident happened in 2020, and Dimit’s father, Steven Dimit, says school administrators “knew or reasonably should have known of the inherently dangerous nature of the 500 and took swift and decisive action to prevent his fraternities. sororities… to engage in [the] activity.”
Lawyer Paul Morrison told News Channel 11 that The 500’s aim was to go “as fast as possible and force the car to drift”. Morrison called the 500 a “tradition”.
The night Dimit died, she had held a “rally” at her apartment with other sorority members, the lawsuit says. One of the sorority members drove while other sorority sisters rode as passengers. When the car came to the top of a hill, the driver got out of the vehicle to take a photo of the group, “commemorating what would in all likelihood be their last run in the 500…before graduation.”
The car ride then became deadly.
The driver “drove the vehicle at an excessively high speed” and took a fishtail turn onto Itta Bena Road, a gravel road, causing the vehicle to overturn and crash into trees. The lawsuit notes that “the driver… never applied her brakes.”
Earlier reports of Dimit’s death revealed that she was seated behind the driver’s seat and died of blunt force trauma.
Last October, a grand jury indicted the driver, Lauren Nicole Sayer, of manslaughter. According to online court records, the case has not yet gone to trial.
Lawsuit alleges Emory and Henry knew about 500, failed to act
According to Emory & Henry, its fraternities and sororities are autonomous student organizations that are directly advised by the college’s Office of Greek Life. The lawsuit alleges that the college established and regulated this system of fraternities and sororities, none of which are affiliated with national organizations, as part of its efforts to attract and retain students.
“Emory & Henry used its Greek system as a marketing tool to attract students, including Gracie, with representations of an active and safe social life at Emory & Henry,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit alleges that the sorority Dimit joined in the fall of 2018, Kappa Phi Alpha, has always participated in hazing events.
The lawsuit claims The 500 constitutes hazing because it “recklessly and intentionally endangers the health and safety of Emory & Henry students in connection with their members in a sorority.” Hazing is illegal under Virginia state law.
Dimit’s father alleges that Gracie participated in “a number of hazing activities”, which included “physical beatings, zip promises to each other and consumption of massive amounts of alcohol, and a activity called ‘The Emory 500’ or ‘The 500’.” The lawsuit claims the college had known about The Emory 500 “for many years” before Dimit’s death.
“After she died, the Dimits were told she died doing The 500, the Emory 500,” Morrison told News Channel 11. “They had never heard of it before.”
Dimit’s parents say they were unaware of the hazing until their daughter died.
“We were not aware of any incidents of hazing prior to Gracie’s death, but have since found evidence of hazing through pictures, group chats, videos and sorority binders, including no only ‘500ing,’ but also other dangerous activities,” Dimit’s parents wrote to News. Channel 11. “Gracie’s sorority sisters also contacted us after her death.”
Since the college regulates Greek organizations at the school, the lawsuit charges it with several counts of negligence, claiming that Emory & Henry “[endorsed] Greek life on campus and [encouraged] students to join organizations…that Emory and Henry knew were engaging in risky and dangerous hazing activities.
The lawsuit filed by Dimit’s father seeks a jury trial, $5 million in compensatory damages and $350,000 in punitive damages.
“The Dimits don’t want this to happen to anyone else’s daughter or son,” Morrison said. “They believe college should be fun, but it should be safe. And they want changes made so it doesn’t happen to someone else.
According to Dimits’ parents, E&H President John Wells told them the university was taking action after their daughter’s death.
“We were told that the process to request the closure of the road to traffic had already begun and that the student code of conduct would be updated to include any student found ‘500ing’ who would be at risk of expulsion,” wrote the Dmit’s parents. “To date, we have not seen this language added to the Student Code of Conduct which is currently available online, nor has it ever been discussed publicly or privately within Greek Life or with other students. . There is only one residence on Itta Bena Road, and it was purchased after we first met by Emory and Henry and has since been converted into student accommodation, making the gravel road even more frequently traveled by students.
According to Morrison, had the college taken action, the lawsuit would not have been filed.
“If Emory had added to the code of conduct that if anyone is caught doing the 500 they will be suspended or expelled, as they told the Dimits they would immediately after Gracie died, if they had taken real action to close this road, we wouldn’t be here,” Morrison said.
“It’s as simple as that. We wouldn’t be there, but they were ignored. And when we tried to contact them and do something about it, we were ignored.
Emory & Henry released this statement to News Channel 11 regarding the lawsuit:
The loss of Gracie Dimit is a loss that weighs heavily on many hearts in the College. She was an exemplary student and friend to many and is fondly remembered. It is about a tragic car accident that took place in the summer of July 2020 during the pandemic, when the college was closed and only offered online classes.
Mark R. Graham, Vice President for Administration
Emory & Henry received the lawsuit on May 20. The college has 30 days to officially respond.