Parents sue university for son's fatal dorm fall

[29 Sep 2005]
by Nicole Wagner

A Mount Prospect [Illinois] couple is suing the University of Kansas for the death of their son, who fell from a seventh-floor ledge outside his dormitory window.

Eric Wellhausen, 18, died after falling from a ledge 5 feet below his Oliver Hall dormitory window. Early news reports after his death said school officials believed he climbed onto the ledge to smoke and slipped. The lawsuit his parents, John and Donna Wellhausen, filed said the university is at fault, that Oliver Hall had an "open and accessible unguarded and unprotected" ledge.

The suit was filed in federal court in Kansas City, Kan., Sept. 8 -- just days before the two-year anniversary of Wellhausen's Sept. 12, 2003, death.

"We believe there are steps the university could have or should have taken to make it more difficult or harder to get on the ledge," said Andrew Protzman, the Wellhausens' attorney.

University of Kansas spokeswoman Lynn Bretz said the ledges are not easily accessible. To get onto a ledge, a student would have to open the window, take off the screen and drop down, she said.

"Students are warned from day one not to take off the screen and not to crawl on the ledges," Bretz said.

After Wellhausen's death, the university sealed dormitory windows with warning stickers. Screens can only be removed if the stickers are removed first. Students are fined $125 if the stickers are removed.

Oliver Hall was built in 1966, and several other buildings on the university's Lawrence campus have similar architecture, Bretz said. The ledges below each floor are designed to keep the building cool by radiating heat, and the ledges are supposed to block fire from spreading to other floors, Bretz said. She said fire officials told the university it could not weld the windows shut.

Bretz said last week she could not specifically comment on the lawsuit because she had not seen it yet.

"This was a tragic accident that unfortunately involved the consumption of alcohol," Bretz said.

When asked about the university's statement that alcohol was involved, Protzman said he was "not sure yet" and then added, "We think there is much more to this case than it first appears, and there is much more to this case than the university might put forth in their statements."

The Douglas County Coroner's Office did not respond by press time to a Pioneer Press telephone message requesting autopsy results. The University Daily Kansan newspaper reported last week that an autopsy report showed Eric Wellhausen had a blood alcohol level of 0.16.

The lawsuit said the family should be compensated for funeral expenses and suffering as well as the physical and emotional trauma their son endured before he died. It is not clear how long he lived after the fall. Wellhausen was pronounced dead shortly after he was taken to Lawrence Memorial Hospital.

"We're going to let the facts of the case develop and let the doctors speak to that," Protzman said. "It's really too early for me to say anything about that."

The lawsuit states the family is suing for more than $75,000; Protzman said the family is not suing for a specific monetary amount.

Wellhausen, a Rolling Meadows High School graduate, was a freshman at the University of Kansas when he died.

Nicole Wagner can be reached at nwagner@pioneerlocal.com.

original: http://www.pioneerlocal.com/cgi-bin/ppo-story/localnews/current/mp/09-29-05-697312.html (dead link)