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National fraternity faces suit in death

NEW YORK — A national fraternity with chapters on more than 125 campuses must face a lawsuit 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 case against Delta Tau Delta by the family of Johnny Dupree Smith, who was found dead on Oct. 5, 2008. Smith, 18, had a blood alcohol level five times the .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.

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

Unless reversed on appeal, the decision may compel national fraternities ‘‘to redouble 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.

The ruling comes as Greek life rebounds, with membership up 29 percent since 2005. Deaths and injuries from fraternity-related hazing, drinking, and partying are also climbing. Since 2005, at least 54 students nationwide have died in incidents connected with such activities, according to a Bloomberg analysis.

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