- Publisher’s Note on Associational Rights
- Fraternal Law Archives Now Available On-Line
- Mother Sues Sigma Alpha Epsilon and 20 Individuals Following Son’s Death
- Ninth Circuit Upholds SDSU’s Nondiscrimination Policy
- Trademark and Licensing Case Set For Trial
- Hazing Hotline Enters Fifth Year with 32 Sponsors
- Insurers Won’t Defend Hazing or Alcohol Claims
- To Survive, Fraternities Need to Stand for Something, Anything
Newsletter > September 2011 > "Mother Sues Sigma Alpha Epsilon and 20 Individuals Following Son’s Death"
Mother Sues Sigma Alpha Epsilon and 20 Individuals Following Son’s Death
Daniel McCarthy, Manley Burke
George Desdunes, a 19-year-old sophomore at Cornell University, died on February 25, 2011. His mother, Marie Lourdes Andre, filed a wrongful death lawsuit in June in state court in Brooklyn. The lawsuit seeks at least $25 million in damages from Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) and 20 former SAE members and pledge members.
The lawsuit alleges that Mr. Desdunes, an initiated member of the fraternity, was kidnapped by pledge members, had his feet and hands bound with zip ties and duct tape, then was taken to an off-campus apartment. He was then forced to drink until he passed out. According to the suit, Mr. Desdunes was returned to the chapter house and placed on a couch at the chapter house, with his hands and feet still tied.
He was found later that same morning on the couch unconscious. The suit alleges that an autopsy showed Mr. Desdunes had a blood-alcohol content of .409, which is five times the legal limit for driving in most states.
In addition to the civil suit, four pledges were charged criminally with first-degree hazing and first-degree unlawfully dealing with a child. One of the four was also charged with tampering with physical evidence after he allegedly tried to get rid of some of the left over zip ties and duct tape. All have pleaded not guilty.
Following the filing of the suit, SAE released a statement that states, in part:
“An investigation was launched immediately when the incident occurred. Following that investigation, Sigma Alpha Epsilon suspended the chapter’s charter and suspended all of its members until they graduate from the university. There is no active chapter currently at the institution.
Cornell University officials decided to remove recognition of the chapter for a period of no less than five years.
Sigma Alpha Epsilon maintains stringent policies and guidelines for its chapters as part of its risk-management program and reaffirms its zero-tolerance policy for actions that do not comply with our regulations. Members are expected to adhere to our fraternity policies and to uphold behavior consistent with our creed, “The True Gentleman.” The organization actively promotes its anti-hazing initiative program called We Stand Together, which educates both members and non-members on ways to recognize and prevent hazing. In addition, Sigma Alpha Epsilon sponsors an anonymous hazing hotline at 1-888-NOT-HAZE that anyone may use to report inappropriate behavior.”
The University, in addition to withdrawing recognition of the SAE chapter, also amended its recognition policy for fraternities and sororities. In a memorandum dated August 4, 2011 and distributed to the Greek chapters on campus and their national organizations (among others), Travis T. Apgar, the Associate Dean of Students at Cornell, announced the implementation of the new policy. The memorandum noted that the University was working on amendments to the policy for some time, but due to the death of Mr. Desdunes and the resulting lawsuit, implementation of the new policy was advanced.
Under the new policy, first semester freshmen students cannot attend any form of fraternity or sorority sponsored event or activity, regardless of location, if alcohol is present. The policy also established a four-quarter schedule to more strictly regulate the recruitment of new members.
Mr. Apgar concluded by stating, “As stated before, the adoption of these new guidelines and rules is aimed at establishing a safe environment in which the guiding values and historic culture of the fraternity system at Cornell are assured for the present and future. To achieve this, we must recruit members into our fraternities and sororities for all the reasons and values we exist, and not simply for the social aspects of our programming. For a chapter to thrive, they must adapt to these changes and adopt substantive and creative ways to attract new members, while adhering to the laws, rules, and protocols under which we must operate.”
This is yet another sad and unnecessary reminder of the dire consequences that can happen when college students recklessly disregard the dangers of binge drinking and hazing. Look for updates on this case in future issues of Fraternal Law.