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Wrongful death lawsuit filed against Cornell fraternity

By Leigh Remizowski, CNN
  • Sophomore member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon died with blood alcohol content of 0.409%
  • Suit filed by his mother says fraternity pledges tied him up, forced him to drink
  • Fraternity's national office says Cornell chapter suspended after the death
  • Lawsuit cites three other alcohol-related deaths of SAE members or pledges

(CNN) -- The mother of a college student who died of alcohol poisoning at Cornell University is suing Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity for $25 million in a lawsuit that alleges fraternity pledges bound her son's wrists and ankles and forced him to drink alcohol in a hazing ritual on the night of his death.

George Desdunes, 19, was a sophomore member of the fraternity when he died in February. The wrongful death lawsuit, which was filed by Marie Lourdes Andre in Brooklyn Supreme Court on Monday, alleges he was kidnapped by a group of Sigma Alpha Epsilon pledges and forced to drink alcohol and other substances while being quizzed about the fraternity.

"The kidnapping and ensuing events were part of a long-standing fraternity ritual that was authorized and encouraged by SAE chapter officers and members," reads the complaint.

He was then left on a couch in the fraternity house where he lived, where he was found by a housekeeper the next morning. Desdunes, an aspiring doctor, had a blood alcohol content of 0.409% -- more than five times the legal limit -- when he was found, according to the lawsuit.

"It's every parent's nightmare," said William Friedlander, Andre's lawyer, who added that the lawsuit is "not about the money," but to bring attention to the issue of hazing.

"Our object is to get the secret rituals out in the open," Friedlander said. "It's a way to hold (fraternities) accountable for their policies."

The lawsuit cites at least three other alcohol-related deaths of Sigma Alpha Epsilon members or pledges, including, most recently, the 2009 death of University of Kansas pledge Jason Wren.

The parents of California Polytechnic State University student Carson Starkey, who died of alcohol poisoning as a Sigma Alpha Epsilon pledge in 2008, settled a similar lawsuit against the fraternity, said their lawyer, Douglas Fierberg.

"The circumstances leading to Carson's death are substantially similar to the circumstances leading to George's death," Fierberg said.

In a statement addressing Andre's lawsuit, officials at Sigma Alpha Epsilon's national headquarters said that the Cornell chapter of the fraternity was suspended after Desdunes' death.

"Sigma Alpha Epsilon maintains stringent policies and guidelines for its chapters as part of its risk-management program and reaffirms its zero-tolerance policy for actions that do not comply with our regulations," the statement reads. "Members are expected to adhere to our fraternity policies and to uphold behavior consistent with our creed, 'The True Gentleman.'"

Cornell University, located in Ithaca, New York, withdrew recognition of the fraternity for at least five years.

"George Desdunes' death was a tragedy for our campus community," said Tommy Bruce, Cornell's vice president of communications, in a statement. "We want to be clear that Cornell University neither condones nor tolerates hazing or the type of activities that we understand contributed to George's death."

"The matter is now in litigation, and we will be following it closely as it progresses through the courts," Bruce said.