Ask the Experts

Animal House

I am a brother in a popular campus fraternity. I read some disturbing stories in the news. If there is an accident at a frat house, who is legally responsible?

I was a brother at Zeta Beta Tau, so I appreciate the significance of your question. Regardless of intentions, you can be sure an accident will eventually occur at the house. Whether a slip-and-fall or a full-blown, alcohol-fueled incident, it will happen when you place unsupervised teenagers together. I will overview the legal issues and suggest what your fraternity should do to protect itself.

The Greek system of fraternities and sororities is a mainstay of campus life. They are the second-largest provider of student housing, after University-owned residences. Also, colleges literally market on-campus Greek life as a reason to enroll. We now get to mention the movie Animal House. While a farcical snapshot of life in the sixties, it did reveal the university’s unsuccessful struggle to control the fraternities.

Here are the most common injuries at frat houses: 23% from assault, 15% sexual assault, 10% slip-and-fall, 9% fall from a height, 7% auto related, and 7% hazing. Of course, hazing has attracted the most media attention lately.

Enter the lawyers. The first major case was in 1991, when the courts found the university liable for a fraternity incident. Fraternities on the campus were warned about rowdy behavior. The school knew the fraternities were not heeding the warning. When the college did nothing, it made them liable. It seems the more you warn the fraternities, the more liable you become for their activities.

Do not assume this case created a law. There is often a moral obligation, but rarely a legal one. The university will warn and forbid activities such as hazing, excessive drinking and wild parties, but has little power to actually prevent them, cautions an injury law firm. In some cases, the college maybe liable if an accident occurs on land it owns. In other cases, the frat house will be liable if it provides alcohol to underage drinkers.

To protect against lawsuits, fraternity insurance is one solution. It is not a mandatory policy, but a system of donation and contribution to a central fund. The main one is the Fraternity Risk Management Trust. It holds a substantial sum of money, to cover incidents and accidents at frat houses. When students join a fraternity, the most expensive part of their dues is a contribution to the fund. There are cases where the fraternity expelled a brother, leaving parents to be named in a legal suit.

The fraternities do have a solution, whether they like it or not is another matter. Removing alcohol from a frat house can drop the number of claims against it by around 85%. Running alcohol-free residences typically eliminates most of the issues mentioned above.

I’m gonna party like it’s 1999… Prince.

Jacob Maslow is the founder and editor of Legal Scoops.