Cornell Fraternity Sued for $25 Million Over Hazing Death
By Christina Caron
The heartbroken mother of a Cornell University sophomore is suing a fraternity for $25 million after members allegedly kidnapped her son, blindfolded him, bound his hands and feet, and forced him to drink so much alcohol that he passed out and died.
George Desdunes, the son of a Haitian immigrant, was pronounced dead on Feb. 25 from alcohol poisoning at Cayuga Medical Center. Desdunes' blood alcohol level was .409 – more than five times the legal limit, according to the family's lawsuit.
Desdunes' mother, Marie Lourdes Andre, is suing Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity for $25 million in the wrongful death of her only son.
The aspiring doctor was captured by freshmen "pledges" of the fraternity who allegedly devised a horrific set of tasks and punishments for Desdunes and one other frat member.
"I call it inmates running the institution," said Andre's lawyer, William Friedlander, referring to the SAE hazing. "This is a terrible tragic case. He was a really great kid."
Desdunes, 19, a member of the SAE fraternity, was grabbed by the freshmen pledges who tied him up with zip ties and duct tape.
The pledges are alleged to have asked him trivia questions about the fraternity. If he answered incorrectly he reportedly had to do exercises such as sit-ups, or consume various foods and drinks including sugar, flavored syrups and vodka.
Desdunes reportedly passed out, but instead of being brought to a hospital he was reportedly taken to the fraternity house while still bound, and left on a couch in the library.
A housekeeper discovered Desdunes and called 911, and Desdunes was later pronounced dead at Cayuga Medical Center.
Another SAE member, Gregory Wyler, had been kidnapped the same night, and Desdunes' roommate had locked their bedroom door to avoid his own kidnapping.
Andre said in her lawsuit that her son hoped to be a doctor, and was a former altar boy who played varsity soccer and the trumpet.
She said in a statement, "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."
In the past year Friedman and his co-counsel have prosecuted more than 15 hazing cases and most of them, he said, involved deaths from drinking.
Friedman said at least five other deaths have occurred at SAE chapters since 1997.
SAE has more than 240 chapters and nearly 300,000 initiates.
The fraternity released a statement in response to the lawsuit, referencing SAE's "zero-tolerance policy" for members who don't comply with regulations: "Members are expected to adhere to our fraternity policies and to uphold behavior consistent with our creed, 'The True Gentleman.'"
SAE also made note that is sponsors an anonymous hazing hotline at 1-888-NOT-HAZE.
"There's absolutely nothing this organization endorses or publishes that would be an endorsement for hazing," Sigma Alpha Epsilon spokesman Brandon Weghorst told ABCNews.com. "Our leadership won't hesitate to take action against individuals who do not follow our regulations or who breech our risk management."
In response to Desdunes' death, Cornell withdrew recognition of SAE for the next five years which means the fraternity will not operate on Cornell's campus during that time.In a statement Cornell University spokesman Tommy Bruce said the school would be following the litigation closely, and "Cornell University neither condones nor tolerates hazing or the type of activities that we understand contributed to George's death."