YAHANDA: Brotherly hate
Fraternities should not be held responsible for individual accidents
News about Greek organizations generally focuses on what chapters do to get in trouble (search “fraternity” on Google news and the results are mostly negative). This disproportionately gloomy reporting reflects poorly on the chapters’ schools, which in turn leads to punishments that are system-wide overreactions to the conduct of individual houses. Last week, another nationwide news story broke in which a fraternity is being punished unfairly.
According to the Yale Daily News, 86 members of the school’s Sigma Phi Epsilon — nicknamed Sig Ep — chapter are being sued over an incident that occurred in 2011 at a Harvard-Yale football game. Before that game, a former student, Brendan Ross, struck three women with a U-Haul truck that he was driving to the fraternity’s tailgating location. One woman, Nancy Barry, was killed, and the other two were injured. But despite the fact that only one student caused the accident, an excessive number of brothers are now facing legal action.
Many writers whose articles were published last week took note of the fact that Sig Ep’s national chapter has distanced itself from its Yale unit. Its insurance does not cover actions that go against the national fraternity’s policies. Typically, a fraternity’s national organization is able to serve as a safety net to help members of chapters that finds themselves in trouble. With the liability that accompanies fraternities these days, though, it is not surprising that national organizations are hesitant to provide comprehensive insurance for chapters, preferring to save time and money by distancing themselves from those chapters that have participated in illicit activities. In reality, the Sig Ep national’s inaction is not particularly newsworthy. There are two larger injustices that occurred as a result of the U-Haul accident.
The first injustice is that 85 of Ross’ fellow Sig Ep brothers — a group including both former and current students — are now being implicated in a wrongful death suit. Barry’s death was unquestionably tragic. It could have been avoided had Ross been a more responsible driver. Ross deserves to face any appropriate consequences for his actions, and the victims of the accident should receive proper restitution. Implicating an entire fraternity as accomplices in the accident, however, is unfair. Ross alone was directly responsible for what occurred. Though he was driving fraternity supplies to a fraternity-sponsored event, the other fraternity members neither enabled the accident to occur nor should be held responsible for the consequences of Ross’ negligence. Members who were not even present at the tailgate have been swept up by the lawsuit simply for being in the same chapter. This kind of widespread punishment is entirely unreasonable, as there is nothing the fraternity as a whole did that was inherently wrong, irresponsible or worthy of mass legal action.
The second injustice is more glaring: Ross’ record does not reflect any sort of wrongdoing. After pleading guilty to two relatively small driving infractions, he was sentenced to enter a probation program. Four hundred hours of community service later, Ross emerged with no marks on his criminal history.
The Connecticut justice system should be receiving more anger than Yale’s Sig Ep chapter. To be sure, Ross’ life will not return to how it was before the accident. He will forever be associated with Barry’s death. But it makes little sense when someone can kill a person, injure two others and receive no real punishment, even if the event was accidental. Ross was fortunate in a way that other people may not be. His charges were downgraded so that he could benefit from the probation program. Barry’s family also agreed that the probationary program was adequate punishment, as Ross was apparently a good kid who felt “appropriately remorseful.” Despite the agreement between both sides, Ross’ record deserves some blemish. One should not be able to go from negligent homicide with a motor vehicle to community service that easily — and that should be the primary message of Ross’ accident.
Yet the U-Haul misfortune, just because it is associated with a fraternity, will augment anti-Greek sentiments throughout the country. The vast majority of drivers who kill or injure people every year are not associated with Greek life. But, as is often the case, missteps by one particular person or chapter increase hostility against fraternities nationwide. Other organizations do not face the same backlash. During my first year, for instance, a University student in my dorm was hit by a Safe Ride van. There was no national outrage at the University or the Safe Ride program for that accident, and it would have been absurd for that student to consider the entire Safe Ride program to be of lesser value because of the actions of one driver. The same idea holds for Ross’ situation. Nothing about being in a fraternity significantly influenced his accident — his job in the fraternity was to drive the truck, but the other brothers did not cause him to crash it. Individually suing Ross makes sense, but it is not necessary to blame Barry’s death on all 86 members of his fraternity.
Alex Yahanda is a senior associate editor for The Cavalier Daily.