Gracie LeAnn Dimit was 20 years old when she was killed in a car crash near Emory & Henry College’s main campus on the night of July 16, 2020. Her family believes that her death was directly linked to Greek life at the college. Last week, Gracie Dimit’s estate filed a wrongful death suit against E&H.
Steve Dimit, Gracie’s father and the administrator of her estate, was clear when he explained the decision to take the civil action. It is, he said, to prevent another family from suffering the same kind of loss that he and his family have experienced for nearly two years.
According to a criminal complaint filed in Washington County General District Court, Gracie Dimit was riding in the driver's side rear passenger seat of the vehicle when the driver, 21-year-old Lauren Nicole Salyer, lost control of the vehicle in a curve on Itta Bena Road near Emory & Henry, slid off the roadway and struck a tree.
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Dimit died at the scene and another passenger was airlifted to a hospital. Salyer was also injured, while a fourth passenger was not harmed.
The complaint also notes that witnesses reported that a video was sent out “prior to the crash befor [sic] going down the hill to the curve.”
“The gravel road is known as the 500 to the college students,” Virginia State Trooper D.J. Hess wrote in the complaint. “At the curve the students say they try to drift/fishtail the vehicle.”
The wrongful death complaint filed May 16 in Washington County Circuit Court describes “The 500” as “an activity which had taken place at Emory & Henry for many years prior to July 16, 2020, during which fraternity and sorority members drove automobiles through and around the… campus at a dangerously high rate of speed.”
The 500, the suit says, is “a Greek life and KPA tradition.” KPA is the Kappa Phi Alpha Sorority, which Gracie Dimit joined in the fall of her sophomore year at E&H.
On the night of her death, the suit says that it was the sorority that brought the girls together and prompted the fatal car ride.
That evening, the suit says, KPA members and representatives gathered at Gracie’s apartment. After an exchange of sorority materials, they “decided to engage in The 500….” The document continues, “Near the end of this running of The 500, prior to descending the hill of Itta Bena Road, a gravel road connected to… campus, Salyer stopped the vehicle and took a cellphone video of the occupants of the car, who were commemorating what in all likelihood would be their last running of The 500 as KPA sisters before graduation.”
A few minutes later, the vehicle fishtailed. “The vehicle began to overturn and crashed into a number of trees, before it finally came to rest.” The suit says, “The driver of the vehicle never applied her brakes.”
The legal action contends that Emory & Henry officials knew about The 500 “as an inherently dangerous activity occurring under its auspices, both on and off campus…, and negligently, recklessly, and with callous disregard for the lives and safety of others encouraged and permitted this conduct to occur.”
The court document also contends that the dangers of Greek life at E&H extend beyond The 500.
The suit says that E&H’s Greek houses weren’t affiliated with national organizations but “were all created, organized, fostered, governed, and regulated and policed by Emory & Henry.” The fraternities and sororities were used as a college “marketing tool to attract students, including Gracie, with representations of an active and safe social life at Emory & Henry.”
“In its marketing efforts, Emory & Henry represented to parents, family members, potential students and enrolled students that ‘hazing’ was ‘inconsistent with the values of the College and the stated values and purposes of Greek organizations.’ Emory & Henry further made ‘public assurances that Emory & Henry’ was ‘committed to prevent [hazing], addressing it, educating about it, and eradicating it.’”
E&H also maintained a Greek Life office, the suit says, with the purpose to “support and advocate for the safe and positive experience of all members.” Students experiencing hazing or parents who were aware of hazing were encouraged to report incidents to that office.
Yet, as a member of KPA, the suit alleges that “Gracie was encouraged by Emory & Henry to participate in a number of hazing activities, including, but not limited to, physical beatings, zip-tying pledges to one another, and consuming massive quantities of alcohol, and an activity called ‘The Emory 500’ or ‘The 500….’”
Two of the court filing’s exhibits are “Kappa Phi Alpha Bingo” cards. KPA Bingo, the suit says, is “a KPA-sponsored and -sanctioned list of dangerous hazing activities, including, but not limited to ‘Threw Up Before 10AM on Homecoming,’ ‘Downed 10 Apple Pie Shots,’ ‘Hallucinated,’ and ‘500 Around Campus.’”
The suit also notes that hazing was “prohibited by the Non-Academic Conduct Code” and is a violation of Virginia law. The Virginia Code statute that prohibits hazing also, according to the suit, “requires institutions of higher education… to take affirmative steps to combat known hazing practices in its student body.”
The suit also states that E&H has not taken any action against Salyer or KPA for their actions in connection with Gracie Dimit’s death. “Emory & Henry has ratified and endorsed this misconduct, as evidenced by Emory & Henry’s continuing defense of and praise for Salyer. Shortly after this incident took place, Emory & Henry honored Salyer by posting an announcement praising her college career on its website and continuing to allow her to serve as a member of the Greek Council Judicial Board, the very body whose responsibility it is to investigate and punish Greek life policy violations.”
The suit also maintains that the hazing referred to in the complaint “continues at Emory & Henry unabated to this day.”
Ultimately, the suit maintains that “Emory & Henry breached its various duties to Gracie…, and as a proximate result of these multiple failures to address and eradicate the hazing practice of The 500…, Gracie suffered significant and serious bodily injuries that were a proximate cause of her death.”
The complaint seeks a jury trial and is asking for $5 million in compensatory damages and $350,000 in punitive damages.
Emory & Henry was served with the complaint Friday. The college has 30 days from the time it was served to formally respond to the suit.
Monday, when asked how the college responds to the complaint, Mark R. Graham, E&H’s vice president for administration, said in a written statement, “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.”
Steve Dimit doesn’t share that perspective.
In a written statement to the News & Messenger, he explained that he and his family began trying to work with the college shortly after Gracie Dimit’s death.
“On July 23, 2020, three days after we buried our daughter, Steve Dimit wrote, “we initiated a meeting with Emory & Henry President, Dr. John Wells, and the Dean of Students. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss our concerns about Itta Bena Road and the practice of “500ing”. During our meeting, Dr. Wells indicated that Emory & Henry had already begun the process of petitioning … Virginia to close the road to through traffic and we were satisfied with this decision.”
On Jan. 12, 2021, Steve Dimit said they followed up with VDOT and an agency “official advised us that no such request had ever been made. We later learned that Emory & Henry had purchased a residence at 12442 Itta Bena Road, and it was converted into student housing, making the gravel road even more traveled. In the meeting, we were also told the practice of “500ing” was a parade-like event used by Greek organizations, and that the gravel section of Itta Bena was not driven on in these events. We have since learned that the Emory 500 is a longstanding tradition at the college, in which students drive around campus, including … Itta Bena Road, at a high rate of speed, blaring music and horns.”
Steve Dimit also wrote that “Emory & Henry administrators advised us that they would be adding language to the Student Code of Conduct indicating any student found participating in the ‘Emory 500’ would face expulsion, as of today we have not seen this modification added to the Student Code of Conduct that is currently available online. Since our initial meeting with Dr. Wells, we have received no communication from him in reference to this issue or any other concerns that we have had.”
Steve Dimit said, “We feel we have a moral obligation to have these reckless traditions removed from Emory & Henry’s Greek life.” He cited a quote from John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist denomination, “What one generation tolerates, the next generation will embrace.”
“Dr. Wells made a promise to be with our family ‘every step of the way’ but that promise was broken one week after Gracie’s death,” Dimit wrote. “Our goal was only to prevent other families from enduring the loss and pain our family has suffered the past 22 months, unfortunately nothing can be resolved without communication from both parties. We are heartbroken and will never recover from the loss of Gracie, but our hope is that Emory & Henry will make changes in the future to prevent this type of tragedy from occurring to another student/family…. It is also important for us to note that there are some wonderful faculty and staff at Emory & Henry who have reached out with quiet support, love and sorrow for the way this has been handled; we are grateful to these individuals and the love you showed Gracie.”
In addition to this suit, a criminal case continues against Salyer, who was indicted by a grand jury on Oct. 26, 2021 on an involuntary manslaughter charge. A jury trial in the case, which has been delayed twice, is now set for July.
Last year, the Dimits announced that they had established the Gracie LeAnn Dimit Memorial Foundation to continue Gracie’s dreams of helping others, especially children.
Gracie Dimit was working to become a teacher and had volunteered since she was 9 years old to help children. Of establishing the foundation, Brandy Dimit, Gracie’s mother, said, “We want her servant’s heart to live on…. We’ll do it for her… in her honor… her legacy.”
Steve Dimit reiterated that point in his statement released Tuesday, saying, “We will continue to focus our efforts on our family and Gracie’s Foundation as we are determined to keep her loving and giving spirit alive.”
On a 100+ acre farm in Marion, the Dimits want to establish a camp for children with special needs and disabilities and their families.
The foundation is also awarding scholarships to local students who plan to teach and especially those who may want to work in special education or with at-risk children. There’s also a scholarship to help a student with special needs or who is at-risk to continue their education.
The Dimits are also exploring the development of a community playground that will also be accessible to children with special needs.