So, the Cornell Sun (on its bare bones summer staff) has noted that the mother of George Desdunes ’13, the SAE brother who died in a hazing event this past February, is suing the national fraternity for $25 million. I’m no expert on legal matters, but I do know this has significant precedent with cases from other universities, and SAE has been slapped with three wrongful death lawsuits in just the past five years. Most of the wrongful death cases were settled out of court for undisclosed amounts, although at least one, a case against a University of Texas chapter of SAE, was awarded $16.2 million (I’m not positive, but I believe it’s the fraternity’s insurance company that pays out, but the fraternity then finds it that much more difficult and expensive to have adequate coverage for their liabilities, which is necessary for recognition on many campuses. So although the fraternity doesn’t pay out directly, their finances still detrimentally impacted).
Now, here’s my question: is she bring a lawful death lawsuit against Cornell?
In a previous entry, I described how a similar incident had occurred at M.I.T. back in the late 1990s with the death of a pledge at their FIJI chapter. In that case, the Kreuger family held M.I.T. responsible for a lack of supervision of the fraternity that allowed the death to occur. Although a formal lawsuit against the school was never filed, MIT did pay out $6 million to the family, of which $1.25 million went to a memorial scholarship. In hazing-wrongful death lawsuits, it seems, at a casual glance, that while it’s common for the fraternities local chapters and national organizations to be sued, it unusual for the school to be sued, perhaps because its much more difficult to build a case. But, I would not hold out against the possibility that if the lawyers are zealous enough, they can use the lack of supervision against Cornell and receive a similar settlement. For one thing, SAE lived in a university-owned property and the incident allegedly took place in the Townhouses on North Campus.
So, the obvious take-away from this news is that SAE is screwed and totally responsible for their members’ actions. But in the bigger picture, one does wonder if the plaintiffs are going to try and go after Cornell as well.