Gurnee family sues University of Notre Dame after freshman son’s fall causes ‘catastrophic injury’

The parents of a former University of Notre Dame freshman who was severely injured during a party are suing the college, alleging the school put their son at risk by condoning a “quasi-fraternity atmosphere” in an on-campus residence hall.

Sean Tennant, of Gurnee, was beginning the second semester of his freshman year Jan. 27, 2019, when he fell about 30 feet from a second-floor winding stairwell to a concrete basement floor inside the historic Sorin Hall.

Tennant, who was 18 at the time, survived the fall but suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him with “a catastrophic decline in neurocognitive and functional abilities,” according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday in St. Joseph County, Indiana.

The complaint alleges the student’s injuries were avoidable and accused the Roman Catholic university of negligence. The adult rector was not inside the residence hall and “despite knowing about a party, he failed to take reasonable precautions to ensure the safety of the student-residents under his care, custody, control, and supervision,” the lawsuit said.

In addition to lack of supervision, Tennant family’s lawyers also allege a systemic problem in which Notre Dame has “actively encouraged” a “quasi-fraternity atmosphere” in its residence halls as part of its philosophy to keep students living on campus throughout most of their college experience.

The university, near South Bend, Indiana, does not have fraternities or sororities. Instead, residence halls are the focal point of student social life.

Students are required to live in one of the residence halls for their first three years at the school, according to the university website. Seniors are encouraged, but not required, to remain on campus and are offered hall leadership roles and financial incentives to live there for their final year.

The student handbook prohibits alcohol consumption by minors but alcohol is allowed for students of legal age in their on-campus dorms. Consumption or possession of alcoholic beverages in open containers is barred in dorm corridors and common areas, such as lounges or lobbies, according to the handbook.

“This is a kid who never drank in high school‚” said attorney Peter Flowers of Illinois, who filed the suit with Indianapolis lawyer Robert Dassow. “(Tennant) was introduced to alcohol at Notre Dame. They encourage the kids to act like the dorms are fraternities, where you’ve got kids of legal age mixed in with underage kids and inadequate policies and procedures in place, creating an unreasonably dangerous environment.”

As a result of the accidental fall, Tennant lost consciousness and suffered a depressed skull fracture, brain hemorrhage and trauma to his spine that has left him unable to talk or walk without assistance or perform basic daily tasks, including bathing and dressing, the suit said.

He will incur a lifetime of lost wages and hefty medical expenses due to his injuries, said Flowers, who noted it is unlikely Tennant’s condition will improve given the lack of progress he has made since the fall.

A Notre Dame spokesman on Tuesday said the university had yet to be served with a copy of the lawsuit and had no comment.

Tennant, now 20, graduated Warren Township High School in Gurnee before heading to Notre Dame. A triplet, with a brother and sister, he had hoped to pursue an architecture major and is the only member of his family to have attended Notre Dame.

He was receiving rehab services at a facility near his home but, due to COVID-19 concerns, his parents, Stephen and Debbie, moved him back home and are his full-time caregivers, Flowers said.

The couple, through their attorney, declined to comment.

The complaint, on behalf of Tennant and his parents, named the university as a defendant and seeks an unspecified amount in compensatory and punitive damages.

The lawsuit comes as Notre Dame students prepare to return to campus with a fall semester that will begin and end earlier than usual due to the ongoing public health crisis. Students will arrive on campus in phases in early August with new safety guidelines, such as wearing masks in public, and other restrictions on travel, events and visitors.

Sorin Hall, where Tennant fell, was built in 1888 and named after the university’s founder, the Rev. Edward Sorin. It is one of about 30 residence halls on campus and is designated for male students and is a stone’s toss from the famous Golden Dome.

The lawsuit said Tennant was at a party in the dorm where alcohol was being served to him and other underage students. Besides a lack of supervision, the complaint also alleges the university was negligent in the “inspection, maintenance, repair, management, and operation of Sorin Hall and has allowed it to fall below current building code standards.

Flowers said Tennant was likely drinking that night , but he would not disclose the student’s blood alcohol content when it was taken later at the hospital. The family has not yet determined how he obtained the alcohol, Flowers said.

The Notre Dame fire department responded to the hall at about 2 a.m. Jan. 27, 2019 to provide medical attention to a student, the university said in a statement released to the media at the time.

The university did not identify Tennant but confirmed the freshman was in critical condition from a head injury suffered in a fall in Sorin Hall. Notre Dame police were investigating the cause of the fall, the release said.

A copy of the police report was not immediately available. Though university police can investigate and make arrests, the department is not required to make records public.

This article was first published in The Chicago Tribune.

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