ABINGDON, Va. (WJHL) — The father of an Emory & Henry College student killed in a 2020 car crash 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 left 20-year-old Gracie LeAnn Dimit dead. The lawsuit claims the college’s negligence surrounding Greek life activities at the school led to Dimit’s death.
‘The 500’ crash that killed Gracie Dimit
On multiple roads that wind around Emory & Henry, students partook in what was known on campus as “The 500,” the lawsuit states. The loop hosted a myriad of joyrides before the fatal crash occurred in 2020, and Dimit’s father, Steven Dimit, claims school administrators “knew or reasonably should have known of the inherently dangerous nature of The 500 and taken swift and decisive steps to prevent its fraternities sororities…from engaging in [the] activity.”
Attorney Paul Morrison told News Channel 11 that the point of The 500 was to go “as fast as possible and to force the car to drift.” Morrison called The 500 “a tradition.”
The night Dimit died, she had hosted a “gathering” at her apartment with other sorority members, the lawsuit states. One of the sorority members drove as other sorority sisters rode as passengers. When the car made it to the top of a hill, the driver exited the vehicle to take a picture of the group, “commemorating what in all likelihood would be their last running of The 500…before graduation.”
The car ride then became deadly.
The driver “drove the vehicle at an excessively high rate of speed” and fishtailed in a turn on 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.”
Previous reports of Dimit’s death revealed that she had been sitting behind the driver’s seat and died of blunt force trauma.
Last October, a grand jury indicted the driver, Lauren Nicole Salyer, on a charge of involuntary manslaughter. According to online court records, the case hasn’t gone to trial yet.
Lawsuit alleges Emory & Henry knew about The 500, failed to take action
According to Emory & Henry, its fraternities and sororities are self-governing 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 any national organizations, as part of its effort 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, still 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-tying pledges to one another and consuming massive quantities of alcohol, and an activity called ‘The Emory 500’ or ‘The 500.'” The lawsuit claims the college had been aware of The Emory 500 “for many years” prior to Dimit’s death.
“After she died, the Dimits were informed that she died while doing The 500, the Emory 500,” Morrison told News Channel 11. “They had never heard of it before.”
Dimit’s parents say they didn’t know about the hazing until their daughter died.
“We were unaware of hazing incidents prior to Gracie’s death, but have since found evidence of hazing by way of pictures, group chats, videos and sorority binders not only including ‘500ing’ but other dangerous activities as well,” Dimit’s parents wrote to News Channel 11. “Sorority sisters of Gracie’s reached out to us as well following her death.”
Since the college regulates Greek organizations at the school, the lawsuit accuses it of several counts of negligence, claiming that Emory & Henry “[endorsed] Greek Life on campus and [encouraged] students to join organizations…which Emory & Henry knew were engaging in risky and dangerous hazing activities.”
The lawsuit 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 feel very strongly that college needs to be fun, but it needs to be safe. And they want changes made so that this doesn’t happen to somebody else.”
According to Dimits’ parents, E&H President John Wells told them the college was taking action following their daughter’s death.
“We were told that the process of petitioning the road to be closed to thru traffic had already begun and that the Student Code of Conduct would be updated to include any student found ‘500ing’ would face expulsion,” Dimit’s parents wrote. “As of today, we have not seen this language added to the Student Code of Conduct that is currently available online, nor was it ever addressed publicly or privately within Greek Life or with other students. There is only one residence on Itta Bena Road, and it was purchased after our initial meeting by Emory and Henry and has since been converted to student housing making the gravel road even more frequently traveled by students.”
According to Morrison, had the college taken action, the lawsuit wouldn’t have been filed.
“If Emory would have added to the code of conduct that if anyone is caught doing The 500 they’ll be suspended or expelled, as they told the Dimits they would immediately after Gracie’s death, if they had taken real steps to close this road, we wouldn’t be here,” Morrison said.
“It’s as simple as that. We would not be here, but they were ignored. And when we tried to reach out to them and do something about this, and we were ignored.”
Emory & Henry issued this statement to News Channel 11 regarding the lawsuit:
The loss of Gracie Dimit, is one that weighs heavy on many hearts at the College. She was an exemplary student and friend to many and is remembered fondly. This was a tragic car accident that took place in the summer of July 2020 during the pandemic, when the college was shut down and only conducting online classes.Mark R. Graham, Vice President for Administration
Emory & Henry was served with the lawsuit on May 20. The college has 30 days to formally respond.