Liberty, Fraternity, Liability: An Assessment of Fraternity Liability for the Acts of Its Members August 9, 2017

Fall is swiftly approaching and many new students will consider Greek life at their respective colleges and universities. Greek communities offer many advantages to students seeking new experiences, including lifelong friendships, networking opportunities, academic support, philanthropic connections, and the development of leadership skills. However, Greek life comes under tight scrutiny when allegations accusing a fraternity member of harming a social guest or attendee arise. When this happens, fraternities should be concerned about having its charters revoked and/or having to pay monetary damages to accusers. This blog assesses the potential legal issues that can confront national fraternities and its local chapters.

Those harmed by fraternity members often seek to hold the national fraternity liable. The national office of a fraternity is the entity that essentially controls the “purse strings” and whose job it is to promote unity in local chapters. A national fraternity can potentially be held liable for the independent acts of its members when it has the ability to exercise control over the local chapter and when the national fraternity has knowledge that risk management policies are not followed or that a local chapter is engaging in inappropriate behavior. Thus, national fraternities must be vigilant in ensuring that local chapters are compliant with governing policies and procedures.

A local chapter of a fraternity may have even greater exposure to liability than a national office because it has greater contact with individual members and is not as far removed as the national chapter. Liability can result if it can be proven that, for example, the local chapter knows of a pattern of harmful behavior, can foresee that a member poses a threat to the safety of others, or is involved in the supervision of local events. For instance, one court has held that the mere fact that a local fraternity knows that there will be underage drinking taking place at the fraternity house is enough to find liability.

Other considerations also come into play when assessing liability. Many times, fraternities are sued for harm caused to individuals outside of an official fraternity party or at a location other than the fraternity house simply because fraternity members are involved in the incident. When this happens, both the national fraternity and its local chapters will argue that acts committed outside of official events are not the responsibility of the fraternity since it did not in any way control the persons or premises where the harm occurred. Again, these cases are fact specific.

The best advice for all Greek organizations is to educate and train fraternity members on the issues that often confront members of Greek life.  These issues include alcohol abuse, underage drinking, improper social media use, and consent to sexual activity.  Training should begin at the early stages of pledging so that pledges understand what is expected of them before becoming active members. All fraternity members should understand that policies will be enforced.  This way, a fraternity’s goal to exercise a strong, healthy presence on campus without the worry of its charters being revoked or liability for harm can be achieved.

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