Upon hearing the news of her son’s death, Marie Lourdes Andre went into such a state of “hysteria and shock” that she was immediately hospitalized, forced to lay down and given sedatives, her friends testified in court papers filed earlier this month.
Andre’s ordeal was just beginning. Despite her condition, she was immediately called upon to drive five hours to upstate New York to identify the body of her son, George Desdunes ’13, who died after a fraternity hazing ritual on Feb. 25, 2011.
The nightmare continued through the weeks ahead. Magalie Louis, a friend of Andre’s, moved in with Andre to help her in the few days leading up to Desdunes’ funeral. Louis ended up staying another six months, fearful of “what might happen to [Andre] if she were left alone.”
Though three former pledges of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity were acquitted of criminal charges in June, a separate, civil lawsuit is just beginning. Seeking at least $25 million in damages, Andre is suing the national SAE fraternity and at least 15 former brothers of the Cornell chapter.
What may make Andre successful where the Tompkins County District Attorney previously failed is the overpowering, crushing pain of a mother who has lost her son — an emotional context largely absent from the criminal trial of the SAE pledges.
Andre alleges in her lawsuit that Desdunes’ death was the “direct and proximate result of the defendants’ negligence.” Desdunes was left unattended on a fraternity couch after a mock kidnapping in which he was blindfolded, bound with zip ties and forced to consume vodka and pixie stix, according to court documents. He was found unresponsive on the couch that morning and subsequently died at Cayuga Medical Center.
But the attorneys of the SAE pledges, who were found not guilty of first-degree hazing and first-degree unlawfully dealing with a child, have argued that Desdunes was complicit in the binge drinking that preceded his death.
They noted that Desdunes was known as a heavy drinker and that he had been seen drinking the night of his death, prior to the hazing ritual. According to them, the ruling of Judge Judith Rossiter J.D. ’86 put to rest the claim that the pledges were responsible for Desdunes’ death.
"The court determined, without reservation or equivocation, that these young men are innocent. They did not haze George Desdunes or cause his death," Ray Schlather J.D. ’76, the attorney for defendant Max Haskin ’14, told The Sun in June.
Still, the upcoming trial is likely to be different on several fronts. For one, the defendants are accused of negligence resulting in death — not hazing, as they were in the criminal trial.
The burden of proof has also changed. Whereas the district attorney had to prove the defendants’ guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the plaintiff in the civil suit will only have to show that the pledges were negligent based on a “preponderance of the evidence,” according to William Friedlander, Andre’s lawyer.
Then there are the stories of Andre and her friends, though whether they will ever be heard in a court of law remains to be seen.
Over the last few months, lawyers have sparred over where the trial will be held. SAE has requested that the case be moved to Ithaca, but Andre’s lawyers say this would prevent witnesses from providing crucial insight into the emotional toll of Desdunes’ death.
One such witness is Louis, the woman who stayed with Andre for six months and is herself a mother of three.
Louis met Andre 22 years ago, when Desdunes was a baby. George Desdunes’ father, Bernard Desdunes, had just died of lung cancer.
“I saw George grow up from a toddler to a wonderful young man. I witnessed his relationship with his mother, and their mutual reliance and dependence on each other,” Louis says in her affidavit. “She remains devastated by George’s death.”
Another potential witness who says she could not testify in Ithaca is Christine Hooker, who called EMS for Andre when they learned of Desdunes’ death. Hooker, like other witnesses, says it would be an undue burden for her to travel to Ithaca to testify.
“I have observed the effects George’s death has had on [Andre’s] ability to continue working. She often needs days off because she is still suffering,” Hooker states in her affidavit.
The defense, meanwhile, holds that witnesses like Louis and Hooker are “completely irrelevant … to either liability or damage issues.” They note that a janitor who saw Desdunes’ body that February morning would not be able to make the trip to New York City if the case were moved there, and say his testimony is more central to the case than that of Andre’s supporters.
The fight over the trial’s location may be particularly important because this case, unlike the last, will be decided by a jury. The criminal trial was decided by a single judge, who may have been less prone to be swayed by more emotional appeals.
Following that ruling, one defendant appeared to declare victory. “#WEWON,” Ben Mann ’14 posted on Twitter a few hours after the pledges were acquitted.
But Friendlander said he remains confident Andre will win the civil trial — and that it will be clear, after months of public controversy and seemingly endless legal wrangling, who is responsible for Marie Lourdes Andre’s grief.
“It’s uncontroverted that [the pledges] did things that led to Desdunes’ unfortunate death,” Friedlander said. “This is hopefully going to send a message to the fraternity and the members of the fraternity system that this conduct is unacceptable. You can’t act like this. You have to be held accountable.”