As a $25 million wrongful death lawsuit against Sigma Alpha Epsilon and several Cornell students progresses, new details have emerged about the events leading up to the death of George Desdunes ’13 last February.
According to documents filed in the lawsuit by Desdunes’ mother, a “noose” was tied around his neck so tightly that it left “ligature marks.” The noose, the documents say, was used in addition to zip ties and duct tape during the pledging event that preceded Desdunes’ death.
In a separate development, SAE began pushing earlier this month to move the case from New York City, where it was filed, to Tompkins County, arguing that many potential witnesses are in the Ithaca area.
Desdunes’ mother filed the lawsuit against SAE and several Cornell students in June. The suit seeks at least $25 million in damages.
Desdunes, 19, who was a brother in SAE, was found on a couch at the SAE fraternity house on Feb. 25, 2011, and later died at Cayuga Medical Center.
The lawsuit claims that after a hazing event in which he was tied up and given alcohol by pledge members, Desdunes became so intoxicated that he “required immediate medical treatment. Instead, he was taken by the pledges, still bound at the wrists and ankles, and dumped on a couch in the SAE house where he was unattended and left to die.”
The lawsuit was filed on June 27 by Marie Lourdes Andre, Desdunes’ mother, in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, where she lives. But SAE filed a motion on Feb. 2 to move the case to Tompkins County, arguing that potential witnesses would be inconvenienced by having to travel to New York City.
Andre “should not be able to force virtually all of the material witnesses to travel to [Brooklyn] solely for her convenience,” SAE’s motion argued. The motion identified two cleaning service employees, as well as employees at Cayuga Medical Center, as potential witnesses. One of the cleaning service employees stated in an affidavit that he had found Desdunes in the SAE house.
Attorneys for both Andre and SAE declined to comment on any part of the lawsuit. The judge in the case has not yet ruled on SAE’s motion, but a hearing is scheduled for Thursday.
In other court documents, new details emerged about what Andre alleges happened to Desdunes before his death.
In addition to tying Desdunes’ hands and feet with zip ties and duct tape, the lawsuit says pledge members “tied a noose around his neck, leaving ligature marks documented in hospital records.”
The zip ties, duct tape and alleged noose were part of a mock kidnapping that was a traditional SAE pledge event, court documents allege. Pledge members took Desdunes and another SAE brother to the townhouse apartments on North Campus around 1 a.m. on Feb. 25, 2011. The two fraternity brothers were tied up and quizzed about “fraternity information and lore,” and when they answered incorrectly they performed exercises or were given drinks, such as flavored syrup or vodka, the documents state.
At about 5 a.m., the pledge members returned Desdunes to the SAE house, where he was left on a couch because his room was locked, Andre’s lawsuit says. Desdunes’ roommate had previously locked the room “to prevent pledges from kidnapping him while he slept.” When Desdunes was found at 7 a.m. that morning, he was still bound with the zip ties and duct tape, the lawsuit says.
Andre’s lawsuit states that her son’s blood alcohol level was 0.409 after his death. However, a separate criminal complaint says Desdunes’ blood alcohol level was 0.35. By comparison, the legal limit to drive in New York State is 0.08.
SAE and several of the students named in the lawsuit filed responses denying the suit’s allegations. None of the defendants’ attorneys agreed to discuss the lawsuit for this article.
Soon after Andre’s lawsuit was filed, the SAE Foundation — a nonprofit organization, distinct from the fraternity, that was also named as a defendant — brought a motion to dismiss the suit. It argued that the New York court in which the lawsuit was filed did not have jurisdiction over the Foundation, which is headquartered in Illinois. The court has not yet ruled on the motion.
In addition to the SAE fraternity and the Foundation, the lawsuit names several former SAE pledges as defendants, including Max Haskin ’14, Ben Mann ’14 and Edward Williams ’14. The suit states that the pledge event took place at Williams’ dorm in the townhouse apartments. SAE’s former chapter president, vice president and several other undergraduate officers were also named as defendants.
In May, Haskin, Mann, Williams and a fourth unnamed defendant who was under the age of 19 at the time were charged with misdemeanor counts of first-degree hazing and first-degree unlawfully dealing with a child in connection with Desdunes’ death. The defendants, none of whom were still enrolled at Cornell at that time, pleaded not guilty.
The individual who was under 19 was also charged with tampering with physical evidence after he allegedly asked his roommate “to get rid of the left-over zip ties and duct tape from the hazing incident,” the court documents state.
The University withdrew recognition of SAE in March, forcing the fraternity’s members to vacate the house by the end of that month. Additionally, the SAE national organization closed the Cornell chapter and suspended all its members until they graduate.
Leading up to Desdunes’ death, the lawsuit claims that SAE had “negligently implemented” an ineffective risk management policy. The fraternity had knowledge of “a staggering number of serious injuries and deaths from Greek activities, substantial flaws in its management system and the foreseeable risk of future injury and death should its activities, traditions and risk management strategies continue without meaningful change,” the court documents state.
SAE’s website features an anti-hazing education program and states that the fraternity “is committed to create a safe environment for all of our members.”
The lawsuit claims that SAE knew or should have known about statistics and studies showing high rates of binge drinking and alcohol-related deaths and injuries among fraternity members nationwide.