Clemson student Tucker Hipps’ death was caused by his “voluntarily jumping into the water” from a bridge over Lake Hartwell, and resulted from his own “negligence,” Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity Inc., alleges in its answer to a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Hipps’ parents.
Clemson’s former SigEp chapter also filed a motion asking that the case against it be dismissed, because the chapter had been dissolved by the time the lawsuit was filed.
Documents filed at the Pickens County courthouse last week also give the responses of Clemson University and two members of the fraternity who took part in the early morning run across the S.C. 93 bridge last Sept. 22 during which Hipps died. Each allege Hipps’s own “negligence” caused his death.
The wrongful death suit, which seeks $25 million in damages, along with a separate but identical $25 million personal injury suit, claims that fraternity member Robert Carter King confronted Hipps on the bridge about Hipps’ failure to bring breakfast for the group as he had been told, the lawsuit says.
Then, Hipps, who was still a pledge with the fraternity, went over the bridge and into the lake, the suit alleges.
The parents’ suit contends that King shined the flashlight on his cell phone into the water looking for Hipps and then called another defendant, Campbell T. Starr, on his cell phone. Starr would later tell police that he knew about the pledges’ failure to provide breakfast and that “Tucker would be held responsible.”
In King’s answer, attorneys say King shined his flashlight in order to see the fraternity members running back across the lake on the parallel bridge, denying that he was looking for Hipps.
Starr’s answer to the suit denies that Starr ever told anyone that Hipps would be “held responsible” for the pledges not bringing biscuits.
Starr also denies “ever jumping off one or more bridges over Lake Hartwell and swimming to shore during any Local Chapter participation.” The lawsuit alleges that the fraternity had a long tradition of “requiring, pressuring, encouraging and forcing” pledges to jump off bridges into the lake and swim to shore.
The parents’ lawsuit never made specific allegations as to how Hipps ended up in the water, and the answers provide little information other than denials of involvement.
The fraternity’s answer argues that Hipps’ injuries “were directly and proximately caused and contributed to by Plaintiff’s decedents voluntarily jumping into the water, and/or otherwise voluntarily assuming the risk …”
An autopsy showed that Hipps, a sophomore and graduate of Wren High School, died of head injuries consistent with having hit rip-rap rocks in the shallow water near the end of the bridge.
His body was found on the Oconee County side of the lake, although investigators later determined that he had gone into the water on the Pickens County side.
Fraternity members called the campus police that afternoon, saying they were looking for Hipps. They said he was last seen lagging behind as he was running across the bridge.
The Oconee County Sheriff’s Office is continuing to investigate but assigned the case to a cold-case specialist.
Clemson University, in its answer to the lawsuit, denied allegations that the fraternity run violated university policy.
“This defendant has no knowledge as to how the incident resulting in Tucker’s death occurred,” it says.