Education

Lawsuit sheds light on moments before University of Iowa student froze to death

Family accuses UI of locking Burge doors without telling students

IOWA CITY — The University of Iowa freshman who froze to death during a polar vortex in early 2019 was captured on Burge Residence Hall surveillance video banging “frantically” for someone to let him into his dorm, according to a lawsuit his family filed this month against UI, the Board of Regents and the state of Iowa.

Gerald M. Belz, an 18-year-old Cedar Rapids Kennedy High School graduate in his first year at the UI, had left his residence hall sometime after 12:45 a.m., Jan. 30 — a day forecast to be so cold the university took the unusual step of canceling all classes.

When Belz was captured on video trying to re-enter Burge at 1:09 a.m., he’s seen discovering the typically open entrance into a heated vestibule had been locked, compelling him to “bang frantically on the door in an attempt to get the attention of someone who might help him enter,” according to the lawsuit his parents filed Aug. 5.

The lawsuit discloses new details about what precipitated the student’s death.

The suit accuses the university of locking exterior doors into Burge’s warmer entry vestibules that night without warning residents — even though it “knew or should have known” that failing to do so “could cause harm to those residents including Gerald Belz.”

The university also didn’t put security personnel at the newly shuttered entrances, which the lawsuit states were locked that night to prevent pipes from freezing.

“No one came to Gerald’s aid, and surveillance video captured him falling to the ground in front of the door at the northwest corner of Burge Hall,” according to the lawsuit. “Gerald’s only safe harbor was the vestibules at the four primary entrances to Burge Hall due to other campus buildings being closed.”

One hour and 39 minutes later, at 2:48 a.m., Belz was found unresponsive outside Halsey Hall, an academic building about three-tenths of a mile down the T. Anne Cleary Walkway from Burge. He was pronounced dead at the UI Hospitals and Clinics just after 4:30 a.m. “having frozen to death within walking distance of Burge Hall,” his parents report in their lawsuit.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

A Johnson County Medical Examiner report released last year indicated Belz died of hypothermia due to cold exposure and had evidence in his system of recent use of THC — a compound that is the main active ingredient in marijuana.

The medical examiner ruled Belz’s death was an “accident,” according to UI police.

Temperatures that morning broke record lows, reaching 25 below zero — colder than the previous 22-below record set in 1951 — prompting schools at all levels across the Corridor to cancel classes for days.

Belz’ family is suing the university, regents and state for negligence involving their wrongful death allegations and for loss of “the support, society, companionship and consortium of their son.”

“The University of Iowa accepted the duty and responsibility for the supervision and safety of the residents of Burge Hall, including Gerald Belz,” according to the lawsuit.

The suit argues the UI failed in upholding its duty by, among other actions, locking the Burge doors, failing to tell its residents, failing to assign security personnel to the entrances and “failing to develop, update, and implement an appropriate emergency plan to reduce the risk of harm to students.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.