The family of the late Clemson student Tucker Hipps on Monday filed lawsuits seeking more than $50 million in damages from Clemson University, Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity and three individual fraternity members.
The lawsuits allege that the 19-year-old Hipps was the victim of a harassing hazing incident during a 2014 pre-dawn pledge run and that Sigma Phi Epsilon brothers attempted to cover up their role in his death by deleting text messages, cellphone calls and – in one case – changing phone numbers.
There has been no ruling on the manner of death, according to Oconee County Coroner Karl Addis. As long as there is an open, active sheriff’s department investigation, the manner of death will remain open.
The lawsuits were filed in Pickens County where Clemson is located.
One pledge assisted in the cover-up before Hipps’ body was found, texting Hipps’ girlfriend, Katie Clouse, telling her that Tucker was in the library, the lawsuits said. That pledge, Tyler Stanley, texted to fraternity members that the message to Katie “should help buy time” while the search for Tucker went on, the lawsuits said.
During that run, on Sept. 22, 2014, Hipps – a sophomore at the time –had a “confrontation” on the bridge with a fraternity brother who was upset that Hipps had not bought 30 McDonald’s breakfasts and 2 gallons of chocolate milk before the run, the lawsuits said. Hipps was responsible for rounding up the food, the suits said.
At the time, Hipps was one of 27 pledges making the run. The night before, studying in the campus library until midnight, he had been repeatedly texted by fraternity brothers ordering him to get the 30 McDonald’s breakfasts, the lawsuits said.
Hipps had texted back that he didn’t have enough money in his bank account, and fraternity brothers had ordered him to get the money from other pledges. Such a breakfast would cost upward of $100 or more.
The lawsuits did not explain exactly how Hipps went over the edge of the bridge. But they asserted that fraternity brother Thomas King was the one who confronted Hipps and “subsequently, Tucker went over the railing of the bridge into the shallow waters of Lake Hartwell head first,” the lawsuits said.
The run started at 5:30 a.m. , before the sun came up. The 27 pledges were accompanied by King and the two other brothers who are defendants in the lawsuits – Campbell Starr and Samuel Quillen Carney. Carney is the son of Delaware Congressman Rep. John Carney, a Democrat.
During the run, King and Carney would “threaten the pledges by saying, “Do not let us pass you,” the lawsuits said.
Fraternity brothers did not notify Clemson authorities Hipps was missing until 1:15 p.m., more than seven hours after he disappeared, the lawsuits said.
That call, from Starr, triggered a police search for Hipps, the lawsuits said. Clemson police soon found Hipps’ battered body, floating in Lake Hartwell, underneath the S.C. 93 twin bridge that spans the lake.
“A long tradition existed among the members of the local chapter of requiring, encouraging and forcing pledges to jump off one or more bridges over Lake Hartwell and swim to shore,” according to the lawsuits.
After Hipps went over the bridge railing, King shone “the flashlight on his cellphone into the dark waters below looking for” Hipps, the lawsuits said.
An autopsy – which officials have kept secret until these lawsuits – concluded he had died of “blunt force trauma” consistent with a “downward headfirst falling injury,” the lawsuits said.
A toxicology report found Hipps had not been drinking or ingesting drugs, the lawsuits said.
A statement by the family released Monday called Hipps’ death a “senseless and avoidable tragedy. The culture of hazing and inappropriate conduct by social fraternities must be stopped. Universities and fraternities must make change from within to protect their own.”
Hipps’ parents said they filed the lawsuits “in the hopes that change will happen and that no other parent will feel the pain they have been forced to endure. Tucker lost his life, but we must not let it be vain.”
Clemson suspended the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity for five years, but has made little additional information available about exactly how Hipps died. Clemson apparently took action against the fraternity for allegations not connected with Hipps’ death.
“Tucker Hipps was the only child of Cynthia and Gary Hipps, and the last heir to carry on the Hipps name,” the lawsuits said.
A political science major, Hipps was “kind and thoughtful with a contagious smile” and planned to go to law school after graduating from Clemson, the lawsuits said.
The lawsuits contained numerous details about pledge life, including that pledges like Hipps were required to keep a “pledge pack” in their cars which included condoms, cigarettes and dip.
Demands by brothers on pledges were not optional and a pledge would be dropped from the fraternity if he disobeyed, the lawsuits said. Pledge duties included picking up girls and food, mowing grass, driving brothers to class, moving furniture “or anything else the Brothers desired,” the lawsuits said.
“Pledges were consistently required to spend their own money to buy food or run errands for the brothers,” the lawsuits said.
The stark allegations of brutal hazing and fraternity cover-up are at variance with the rosy picture that Clemson fraternities and sororities offer on Clemson’s official Internet site.
“Clemson fraternities and sororities are student led organizations that enhance the student experience inside and outside the classroom,” the fraternity and sorority pages say. “We provide excellent leadership, scholarship, service and social opportunities and better prepare members to make significant contributions beyond the undergraduate experience.”
The fraternity-oriented pages also say that all fraternities and sorority policies strictly forbid hazing and that Clemson also has a policy against hazing.
So far, law enforcement authorities have not charged anyone in connection with Hipps’ death. SLED conducted an investigation and turned over its results to the Oconee County Sheriff’s Office.
Jimmy Watt, an Oconee County Sheriff’s Office spokesman, has said the investigation of Hipps’ death is continuing and there will be no new information released until it reaches a conclusion.
The lawsuits said Clemson failed to provide education and training about policies to the fraternity, failed to suspend the fraternity immediately when it learned of conduct violations and failed to enforce its policies to protect pledges.
Cathy Sams, a university spokeswoman, said in a statement that although they have not been served with the lawsuits, the university is aware of them.
Sams said the university does not comment on pending litigation.
One lawsuit is a wrongful death action; the other is a survival action Lawyers representing the Hipps family are Jennifer Burnett, Druanne White and Trevor White, all of Anderson.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: "The total amount being sought by the lawsuits was corrected in this story to $50 million from $25 million at 7:45 p.m. March 31 because it was in error."]