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Fraternity risk for drinking deaths rises after court ruling

A national fraternity with chapters on more than 125 campuses must stand trial over the drinking death of a Wabash College freshman, an Indiana court said in a ruling that may force the organizations to take more responsibility for misconduct at chapter houses.

The Indiana Court of Appeals on May 8 reinstated a lawsuit against Delta Tau Delta by the family of Johnny Dupree Smith. Smith, 18, was found dead Oct. 5, 2008, his blood alcohol level five times the 0.08 percent limit for legal intoxication in Indiana. He had passed out during “Pledge Family Drink Night,” according to the complaint in the wrongful-death case.

The ruling is the first by an appellate court in Indiana, where many fraternities are based, that a national fraternity must face a trial for injury or death at a chapter house, Stephen Wagner, a lawyer for Smith’s parents, said.

Unless reversed on appeal, the decision may compel national fraternities “to re-double their efforts to protect all their members” from injury, said Robert Heidt, who teaches negligence law at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law in Bloomington, Ind. “If every court in the country did this, I bet it would change the structure of fraternities.”

The ruling comes as Greek life rebounds, with membership up 29 percent since 2005. Death and injury from fraternity-related activities are also climbing.

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