Family of UI student who died in 2019 polar vortex files wrongful death lawsuit against university

The lawsuit alleges UI student Gerald Belz died of hypothermia after being locked out of Burge Hall.


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Rylee Wilson, News Editor

The family of University of Iowa student Gerald Belz, who died of hypothermia during the polar vortex in January of 2019, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the university, claiming Belz was unable to enter his residence hall on the night he died. 

According to the lawsuit filed Aug. 5, Belz, a resident of Burge Hall, left the dormitory sometime after 12:45 a.m. on the morning of Jan. 30, 2019, when temperatures reached 50 degrees below zero. At 1:09 a.m., surveillance video showed Belz attempting to enter Burge Hall through the locked northwest entrance.

“Gerald was left to bang frantically on the door in an attempt to get the attention of someone who might help him enter the building,” the suit read. 

Surveillance video showed Belz collapsing to the ground outside the entrance. 

Burge Hall has four main entrances. The exterior door to these were normally left unlocked, allowing anyone entrance to the heated vestibule, the suit claimed. On the night of Jan. 30, the university locked the exterior doors to Burge Hall to keep pipes in the vestibule from freezing in the sub-zero temperatures. No one would be able to enter the vestibule without a university ID card to open the doors. 

Residents of Burge Hall were not informed that the outer doors would be locked during the night, the suit claimed. 

“The University of Iowa also elected not to place security guards or other personnel in the vestibule areas of the entrances to observe visitors or residents approaching who might need assistance with entering the building,” the suit read. “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.”

The suit said the Burge Hall vestibules would have been Belz’s only option for staying warm, as other university buildings were closed at the time. 

As The Daily Iowan reported in 2019, Belz was found unresponsive near Halsey Hall at 2:48 a.m. on Jan. 30. He died at 4:30 a.m. at UI Hospitals & Clinics. 

In February of 2019, the Johnson County Medical Examiner Department concluded Belz’s death was an accident. There was evidence of recent use of THC.

The wind chill around the time Belz was found was -50 degrees.The UI had canceled classes due to the extremely low temperatures from 5 p.m on Jan. 29 through Jan. 31 at 12 p.m. 

Belz was in his second semester of study at the UI at the time of his death. He was studying pre-medicine. 

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