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Courtesy photo | Bloomberg News
Lee John Mynhardt, shown with his mother, Charmaine, says he is a casualty of the efforts by fraternities to avoid compensating for deaths and injuries.

Fraternities turn backs on brothers

Fail to take responsibility for tragedies

P. Dhanens

Old photographs adorn the mantelpiece in Lee John Mynhardt’s living room. In one, he’s standing beside his parents and sister. In another, he’s all smiles as he wraps his arms around some college buddies.

Today, Mynhardt, 28, is confined to a wheelchair, a quadriplegic unable to move from the chest down, burdened with medical expenses that at times have topped $10,000 a month. As a senior at Elon University in Elon, N.C., he broke his neck when he was grabbed from behind and dragged out of a keg party held by a chapter of one of the largest national fraternities, Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity Inc.

Mynhardt says he is a casualty of the strenuous efforts by national fraternities such as Lambda Chi to avoid paying compensation for deaths and injuries at their local chapters. After he sued, Lambda Chi Alpha and its insurer won court rulings that they weren’t liable for his plight.

“As soon as there’s an incident, national fraternities start distancing themselves,” Mynhardt said at his Charlotte, N.C., home. “It’s irresponsible.”

Odd business model

National fraternities, which grant charters to campus chapters and collect dues from undergraduate members, have at least $170 million in annual revenue, along with valuable holdings ranging from real estate to Tiffany windows.

The nonprofit organizations often protect their growing wealth by insulating themselves from legal and financial responsibility for a wave of alcohol and hazing-related deaths and injuries.

Besieged by lawsuits alleging negligent supervision, some of the biggest national fraternities have limited insurance coverage they provide to members, shielded funds in hard-to-tap foundations and cast blame on local chapters with few or no assets. Rather than intensify monitoring of branches, some fraternities have ceded daily supervision to undergraduates.

Such strategies are paying off. While at least 57 people have been killed or paralyzed since 2005 in incidents involving fraternities or their members, the low-profile national bodies have enjoyed increases of 13 percent in revenue and 29 percent in membership.

“It’s a curious business model,” said Peter Lake, a professor at Stetson University College of Law in Tampa, Fla., who specializes in higher-education law. “You’re establishing a national brand and franchising. And then when your core customers are in a pinch, you’re turning away.”

James Ewbank, a lawyer who has represented at least 10 national fraternities, urged them at a conference last summer to deflect blame when they are sued by bringing cases against chapter members and colleges.

“Share the fun,” he said, according to an outline of his remarks posted online by the Fraternity Executives Association.

The comment was hyperbole, Ewbank said in an interview.

The national fraternities’ success in avoiding liability reinforces their “intransigence,” he said. “They want to wash their hands of the problem and say it’s their brothers’ fault, it’s their chapters’ fault. These are million-dollar organizations that sponsor activities that are harmful.”

Risky behaviors

There are at least 75 national fraternities with branches on college campuses across the United States Some have fewer than 10 chapters while others have more than 200. Membership is almost all male.

Presidents Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton all belonged to fraternities.

Membership in national fraternities increased to 327,260 in 2011 from 253,148 in 2005, according to the North-American Interfraternity Conference, a trade group. Revenue from dues and other sources for national fraternities and their related charitable groups rose to at least $170 million in 2010 from about $150 million in 2005, Internal Revenue Service filings show. Local chapters earned many tens of millions more.

Fraternities own and operate more than $3 billion in real estate, according to the Fraternal Government Relations Coalition, a lobbying group.

Reflecting a national surge in binge drinking by college students, fraternity mayhem today can be far more dangerous than the hijinks celebrated in the 1978 movie “Animal House.” Since 2005, 52 students died and five were paralyzed in incidents linked to fraternities, according to data compiled by Bloomberg from lawsuits, news accounts and interviews. Nine fraternities, including some of the largest, are linked to 38 of the 57 cases, or two-thirds.

Eight students died in both 2011 and 2012. Those are the most fatalities in at least a decade, according to Hank Nuwer, a professor at Franklin College in Franklin, just south of Indianapolis, and author of four books on hazing. Two have died this year.

The risk of fraternity life is so great that only four insurers cover college-age men living together in chapter houses, said Ned Kirklin, who sells fraternity insurance for a unit of Willis & Co. To make coverage affordable, a group of fraternities self-insures part of the risk.

At colleges, which value fraternities as a lure to prospective students and breeding ground of generous alumni, it often takes a death or serious injury to spur discipline. California State University in Chico temporarily suspended Greek life in November after a senior pledge drank himself to death.

National fraternities don’t always avoid liability. After becoming intoxicated at a 2011 New Year’s Eve party at the University of Pennsylvania’s Phi Kappa Sigma House, 20-year-old Matthew Crozier fell over a railing, hit his head and died. His parents received a $3 million settlement from the national fraternity, based in Chester Springs, Pa., and from a related corporation that owned the chapter house.

Hands-off approach

In 2009, Penn State University freshman Joseph Dado died after drinking beer from an open tub at an Alpha Tau Omega party. Even so, the national fraternity’s lawyer recommended against active supervision of local chapters in a 2012 article.

“The role of a national fraternal organization should be predominately passive in its supervision and involvement in the daily activities of local chapters,” G. Coble Caperton, general counsel for Alpha Tau Omega, wrote in the newsletter Fraternal Law. The reason: Most courts won’t hold nationals liable if they don’t take steps creating a legal duty to supervise chapters.

Caperton said in an interview that his fraternity punishes chapters for violating rules and spends “enormous” sums educating members.

“There’s no way we could have a person on-site running these 135 chapters,” he said. “We are anything but passive in preventing alcohol abuse, drug abuse or hazing.”

Some national fraternities may be reluctant to restrict drinking for fear of losing dues-paying members. Indianapolis-based Theta Chi learned that lesson after it joined a small group of fraternities that prohibit alcohol in chapter houses.

“It was the best thing we ever did,” said Dave Westol, former executive director of Theta Chi. “You may have five knuckleheads who won’t join, and the five who replace them” will stay out of trouble.

Theta Chi membership stood at 5,911 in 1998, when the fraternity voted to go alcohol-free. By 2003, when the ban took effect, it had fallen to 5,126. Westol left in 2006, with membership down to 4,664.

In 2010, the national board abandoned the policy. With drinking permitted, membership has rebounded to about 6,700 today.

Declining membership played no role in reversing the alcohol-free policy, Theta Chi Executive Director Michael Mayer said in an email.

Philip Dhanens died of alcohol poisoning after he and other freshmen were locked in a room last August at a Theta Chi chapter at Fresno State University in California until they finished bottles of vodka and tequila.

The national fraternity should have monitored the local chapter more closely, said his mother, Diane Dhanens. She and her husband filed a lawsuit this month against the national fraternity and the chapter.

Fraternity leaders say, “ ‘We’ll let you wear Theta Chi,’ ” she said. “But when something bad happens, ‘We’re out of here.’ ”

Theta Chi said in a statement that it revoked the charter of the Fresno State chapter and that it has “strict guidelines prohibiting underage alcohol consumption.”

Some national fraternities have segregated assets to avoid liability in high-profile cases. Based in Evanston, Ill., where its headquarters contains a priceless collection of stained-glass Tiffany windows, Sigma Alpha Epsilon has been associated with eight deaths since 2005, the most of any fraternity.

Most recently, University of Idaho freshman Joseph Wiederrick, who had been drinking at an SAE party on a Saturday night in January, got lost on his way back to his dorm. The 18-year-old wandered at least five miles, stumbled off an embankment, and froze to death under a bridge.

Greek life big draw

Mynhardt, whose neck was broken at the Elon fraternity party, visited the school for the first time in 2003, as a prospective student. Born in Phoenix, he had moved as a child to Botswana, where his father was a pilot. He attended boarding school in South Africa and opted for college in the U.S. to study business.

Elon, with its Georgian-style buildings, expansive fields and innumerable oak trees on 500-plus acres, appealed to him. Plus, it had a contingent of South Africans and offered rugby, which the six-footer had played since childhood.

On a campus tour, his guide touted Elon’s robust Greek life. Mynhardt went to a fraternity party, where the 17-year-old was served beer.

“They’re telling us 40 percent of the campus was Greek,” he recalled. “It was a huge selling point.”

Mynhardt was injured at an off-campus party on Feb. 3, 2007, at 211 North Lee, a one-story red brick house with bushes in front and a barbecue grill on the side.

Mynhardt’s medical and rehabilitation costs, including onetime expenses such as a $70,000 specially outfitted van, have already exceeded $1 million, Mynhardt said.

Despite Mynhardt’s misfortune, off-campus frat parties still dominate Elon’s social scene. At midnight one recent Saturday, girls in short skirts and guys in tropical shirts braved the 44-degree temperature to gather at a house rented by members of one fraternity. Elon’s student-run “Safe Ride” van ferried some guests to the door. The keg was out back and the dancing inside.

Only members, friends and women were welcome, said a fraternity brother, beer cup in hand. Anyone else, he said, should find another party.

Mynhardt moved into a ranch house in Charlotte last year near Carolinas Medical Center, where he had been hospitalized before.

He has friends nearby and an aide living with him full time. Another visits part time. Every morning, an aide sits him up in bed, moves him to his wheelchair, transports him to the shower, dresses him and helps with dozens of activities he can’t do alone.

Seeking some independence, Mynhardt is now in his first year at Charlotte School of Law. Unable to use his fingers, he takes notes with a stylus attached to his palm and a touch-pad computer.

“I believe a lot of positive things can come out of fraternities,” he said. “But if they’re not run correctly, things are going to get out of control.”

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