The family of a University of Iowa student who froze to death during a subzero polar vortex more than a year ago filed a wrongful death suit against the school last week.
The parents of Gerald Belz, who died last January after allegedly being locked out of his dorm, filed a civil suit against the University of Iowa on Wednesday, according to court documents obtained by Oxygen.com.
Belz, 18, was found unresponsive around 3 a.m. at the rear of an academic hall near his dorm on Jan. 30, 2019. Belz was taken to hospital but was pronounced dead at 4:30 a.m., according to the newspaper. He died of hypothermia, a medical examiner later concluded, according to the Iowa City Press-Citizen. His death was declared an accident. The autopsy also revealed Belz had THC — the psychoactive compound of marijuana — in his system.
The Belz family’s suit alleges that the university negligently locked the outer doors of the dorm building he stayed at the night of the storm but failed to notify students or provide security personnel at his residence’s entrance.
"The University's decision to lock the exterior doors created a situation in which no one, including residents of Burge Hall, was able to gain entrance to the heated vestibule areas of the building without a University ID card," the suit states.
The windchill dropped temperatures to 51 degrees (Fahrenheit) below zero the night Belz was found outside his dorm, according to the Associated Press.
“The UI could have posted security guards or other personnel at the entrances to offer assistance,” the suit added. “As a result, even residents of Burge Hall did not have the ability to alert anyone inside the dormitory that they needed help entering the building."
Belz’s dorm supposedly had four entrances, according to the lawsuit. The filing states the university locked the doors to the dorm building to prevent pipes from freezing. Without an ID card, the building was inaccessible, according to court filings. The 18-year-old appeared to have left the dorm at 12:45 a.m., according to video surveillance. Belz could later be seen knocking on the hall’s northwest entrance shortly after 1 a.m. but was unable to get inside. All the other buildings on campus were supposedly closed.
Belz, who lived a half-hour drive away from his family, decided he would wait out the storm, rather than make the trip home after his classes were canceled.
“At the time I thought that was the smart move,” Michael Belz, his father, told the New York Times at the time. “I didn’t want him to get stuck somewhere driving. So he decided he would stay.”
Belz, a former high school football player, graduated from Kennedy High School in 2018. He was “very mature for his age,” and had “a lot of compassion for others," his father told the Iowa City Press-Citizen. The “quiet” 18-year-old aspired to be a doctor, he said.
"I think Iowa was the only college on his radar," Michael Belz told the Press-Citizen. "I suggested (he) take a look at Iowa State. Take a look at UNI (University of Northern Iowa). He wanted to be a doctor, and he wanted to go to the University of Iowa."
His football coach and social studies teacher, Brian White, remembered Belz as a “smart” teen who was destined to do “great things.”
"You just knew he was going to be successful in life," White told the Press-Citizen.
A spokesperson for the University of Iowa wasn’t immediately available for comment on Monday.
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