Hot Docs: Hazing leads to student alcohol poisoning death, lawsuit claims

November 1, 2012

hazing & the lawHazing in college by fraternity organizations has been seeing increasingly more attention as the injuries and deaths related to such rituals have themselves gained more attention.

One of the factors that most contributes to hazing rituals resulting in severe injuries or deaths of fraternity pledges or members is the regulation of these policies and practices by its undergraduate members.

These undergraduate members have little or no appreciation of the risks involved in binge drinking and other hazing-related activities.

However, given the adolescent mindset of feeling physically invincible, it’s unclear how much of an impact, if any, their being armed with this knowledge would have.

On the other hand, if these students had an appreciation of the legal liability associated with these activities, I would bet they’d think twice before engaging in them.

What legal liabilities, you ask?

A good example of these can be found in a lawsuit filed last week by the surviving mother of a victim of college hazing against the frat members responsible for the incident.

The mother, Marie Lourdes André, lost her only son, George Desdunes, in a hazing incident that took place at Cornell University in New York.

On February 25, 2011, George was kidnapped by fraternity pledges of the New York Alpha Chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity (SAE) after he called the chapter house requesting a ride back to his room.

According to the complaint, George was not intoxicated at this point.

Further, this kidnapping and the ensuing events (getting George intoxicated with alcohol and quizzing him on “fraternity information and lore”) were part of a long-standing SAE fraternity ritual.

Hot Doc: Andre v. Burthey

Source: Thomson Reuters News & Insight – National Litigation

George, a sophomore, was already a member of SAE, so, presumably, the hazing ritual was to kidnap existing members of the fraternity.

If a kidnapped brother misses an answer to the pledges’ questions, he is forced to drink alcohol, often while blindfolded and tied up.

This all allegedly happened to George.

After they were done with him at around 5:00 a.m., the pledges brought an unconscious George back to the frat house.

Since George’s roommate had locked the door (out of apparent fear of being kidnapped), the pledges just dumped George onto a couch in the house’s library.

Two hours later, George was discovered by the housekeeping company hired to clean the frat house, at which time they contacted emergency services.

Upon arrival, emergency medical personnel found George to be unresponsive, with his restraints “still on or near his body.”

George Desdunes and Marie Lourdes André

Photo attached to the complaint of George Desdunes and Marie Lourdes André

When the paramedics measured his blood alcohol content at the house – at least two hours after George had ceased drinking (or, rather, been forced to drink) alcohol – it was at .409%.

As a point of reference, nearly all states impose criminal sanctions for operating a motor vehicle with a blood alcohol content of .08% or higher; George’s was over five times this.

George was then taken to the Cayuga Medical Center, where, sadly, he later died.

The complaint brought by George’s mother Marie lists several flavors of negligence: the garden variety, breach of assumed duties, and failure to rescue.

When looking at the four essential elements of any negligence action (duty, breach, causation, damages), if Marie can sufficiently prove the first, she should be pretty much set on the others.

In other words, the toughest part of this case for George’s mother will be demonstrating that the defendant fraternity members owed a duty to George; there is no question that George would have survived if someone had taken better care of him, and that his death has caused his mother harm.

The complaint, however, is replete with different theories of the duties owed to George by the defendants, including the duty to not use alcohol in a hazing ritual (as mandated by the Cornell student code), to not force George to consume alcohol while bound, and to promptly contact emergency medical personnel when the defendants initially undertook the duty to safely return George to his residence.

With so many duties allegedly owed and breached, George’s mother is likely to get one or more of them to stick.

Unfortunately, that won’t bring George back.

Hopefully, though, this is a circumstance in which the legal ramifications prompt changes sufficient to ensure that what happened to George doesn’t happen to another student.