by JAMES S. KIM
The family of a 22-year-old Washington University student who died last year is seeking $50 million from the school, according to the campus newspaper, Student Life. Soh’s parents allege that the university is partly responsible for their son’s death, which was initially ruled a suicide.
Yongsang Soh, a philosophy, neuroscience and psychology major from South Korea, fell from the 23rd floor of an off-campus apartment in October 2013. While his death was initially ruled as a suicide, a private investigation by Soh’s parents found the presence of LSD in their son’s system, and the state recently changed his cause of death to “undetermined.”
This past summer, Soh’s family, described as a “prominent South Korean family” by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, approached Washington University and proposed a $50 million settlement in damages. In exchange, the family apparently promised not to sue the university or publicize their concerns about what they called a “lax enforcement of discipline.”
Their concerns refer to the Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity’s Phi chapter, which was kicked off of Fraternity Row in 2008 after a criminal drug investigation resulted in a number of arrests, according to Belleville News-Democrat. In 2012, the fraternity was completely disbanded by its national office and suspended by the university after an investigation found “significant violations.”
The family’s argument centers on Washington University’s allegedly “lenient behavior” towards the fraternity. Soh was an active member before the fraternity lost its recognition, and a document the family delivered to the university in June connected the presence of LSD in Soh’s system to Sigma Alpha Mu. On the night of his death, the document states Soh spent time with a number of students with the fraternity.
“He (Soh) was not a drug user,” said Albert Watkins, the family’s attorney, “he had no history of drug use; he had no prior predisposition to alcohol abuse or drug abuse. And that’s what struck the Soh family as being completely out of the ordinary.”
By joining Sigma Alpha Mu, Soh was exposed to a group “with a longstanding and notorious history of drug use, distribution, and exploitation of minors,” the family claimed in the document. “The University chose not to refer these matters to the proper authorities for criminal prosecution as would otherwise be required by any other law enforcement authority.”
The $50 million was chosen to be a financially meaningful amount to the University, according to Watkins. In the future, Soh had been expected to take over the family business, a chain of Papa John’s restaurants in South Korea.
Watkins added that the “primary goal of the Soh family is to implement change necessary to prevent this type of tragedy from occurring again. As part of that demand … there was a demand that the University demonstrate accountability in a meaningful fashion.”
The school rejected the $50 million settlement offer during the summer, and last week, university spokeswoman Jill Friedman said in a statement that they did take the proper steps in disciplinary action, including referring cases to the local prosecutor. The school would not comment on pending legal matters, she added.
St. Louis Police also confirmed that while they are not seeking a criminal suspect for Soh’s death, their investigation is “active and ongoing.”
Known by his friends and instructors as “Young,” Soh is remembered to have a positive attitude and was an avid fan of Cardinals baseball. An international student adviser described Soh as a “really sweet young man, polite and always happy and upbeat, even when dealing with the hassles that immigration paperwork can involve.” Soh was also a member of the Korean Undergraduate Business Association and part of the Korean International Student Society.
Photo courtesy of St. Louis Post-Dispatch