June 28, 2011

Twenty Former SAE Members Named in $25M Wrongful Death Lawsuit

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The mother of George Desdunes ’13, the student who died after a Sigma Alpha Epsilon pledging event in February, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the fraternity on Monday.

The suit seeks at least $25 million in damages and, in addition to the fraternity, names 20 former SAE brothers and pledge members as defendants, according to court documents.

Desdunes, 19, who was a brother in SAE, was found on a couch at the SAE fraternity house on Feb. 25 and later died at Cayuga Medical Center.

The suit claims that after an event in which he was tied up and given alcohol by pledge members, Desdunes had become 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 by Marie Lourdes Andre, Desdunes’ mother, in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, where she lives. Desdunes was Andre’s only child and Desdunes’ father died several years ago, court documents state.

“With the death of my son, I find some comfort in knowing that this lawsuit may bring about changes in fraternities that will prevent other families from suffering as I have,” Andre said, according to the Associated Press.

The former SAE pledges who were named as defendants included Max Haskin ’14, Ben Mann ’14 and Edward Williams ’14. In May, all three men were charged with misdemeanors in connection to Desdunes’ death. At that time, none of them were enrolled at Cornell.

SAE’s former chapter president, vice president and several other undergraduate officers were also named as defendants, along with ten unnamed people who were pledge members or brothers in SAE, according to the lawsuit.

Desdunes participated in a mock kidnapping before his death, court documents state. He and another SAE brother were taken to the townhouse apartments on North Campus by several pledge members, and they had their hands and feet tied with zip ties and duct tape. The two were quizzed about “fraternity information and lore,” and when they answered incorrectly they did exercises or were given drinks, such as flavored syrup or vodka, the documents state.

After his death, authorities discovered Desdunes’ blood alcohol level was 0.35, according to court documents related to the criminal charges. However, Andres’ lawsuit states that her son’s blood alcohol level was 0.409. By comparison, the legal limit to drive in New York State is 0.08.

In May, Haskin, Mann, Williams and a fourth person who was under the age of 19 were charged with misdemeanor counts of first-degree hazing and first-degree unlawfully dealing with a child in connection with Desdunes’ death. The defendants pleaded not guilty.

The individual 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 fraternity did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

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.

It also criticizes Travis Apgar, associate dean of students for fraternity and sorority affairs, for “dismiss[ing] valid safety concerns” in a letter to first-year parents and complains that information related to a sharp increase in hazing complaints was “buried in the back of reports” that were difficult to access for parents. The suit says that Cornell’s website promotes fraternity membership “without identifying any of the documented risks of pledging and membership in fraternities.”

Apgar could not be reached for comment on Tuesday. Neither he nor Cornell were named as defendants in the lawsuit.

Original Author: Michael Linhorst