FIPG regularly produces a risk-management manual—the current version is 50 pages—that lays out a wide range of (optional) best practices. If the manual were Anna Karenina, alcohol policy would be its farming reform: the buzz-killing subplot that quickly reveals itself to be an authorial obsession. For good reason: the majority of all fraternity insurance claims involve booze—I have read hundreds of fraternity incident reports, not one of which describes an event where massive amounts of alcohol weren’t part of the problem—and the need to manage or transfer risk presented by alcohol is perhaps the most important factor in protecting the system’s longevity. Any plaintiff’s attorney worth his salt knows how to use relevant social-host and dramshop laws against a fraternity; to avoid this kind of liability, the fraternity needs to establish that the young men being charged were not acting within the scope of their status as fraternity members. Once they violated their frat’s alcohol policy, they parted company with the frat. It’s a neat piece of logic: the very fact that a young man finds himself in need of insurance coverage is often grounds for denying it to him.
So: alcohol and the fraternity man. Despite everything you may think you know about life on frat row, there are actually only two FIPG-approved means of serving drinks at a frat party. The first is to hire a third-party vendor who will sell drinks and to whom some liability—most significant, that of checking whether drinkers are of legal age—will be transferred. The second and far more common is to have a BYO event, in which the liability for each bottle of alcohol resides solely in the person who brought it. If you think this is in any way a casual system, then you have never read either the FIPG risk-management manual or its sister publication, an essay written in the surrealist vein titled “Making Bring Your Own Beverage Events Happen.”
The official byo system is like something dreamed up by a committee of Soviet bureaucrats and Irish nuns. It begins with the composition—no fewer than 24 hours before the party—of a comprehensive guest list. This guest list does not serve the happy function of ensuring a perfect mix of types and temperaments at the festivity; rather, it limits attendance—and ensures that the frat is in possession of “a witness list in the event something does occur which may end up in court two or more years later.” Provided a fraternity member—let’s call him Larry—is older than 21 (which the great majority of members, like the great majority of all college students, are not), he is allowed to bring six (and no more) beers or four (and no more) wine coolers to the party. (FIPG’s admiration for the wine-cooler four-pack suggests that at least some aspects of the foundational document—including its recommendation for throwing a M*A*S*H-themed party as recently as 2007—have not received much of an overhaul since its first edition, published in the mid‑’80s.) Okay, so Larry brings a six-pack. The first stop, depending on which fraternity he belongs to: a “sober check point,” at which he is subjected to an examination. Does he appear to have already consumed any alcohol? Is he in any way “known” to have done so? If he passes, he hands over his ID for inspection. Next he must do business with a “sober monitor.” This person relieves him of the six-pack, hands him a ticket indicating the precise type of beer he brought, and ideally affixes a “non breakable except by cutting” wristband to his person; only then can Larry retrieve his beers, one at a time, for his own personal consumption. If any are left over at the end of the party, his fraternity will secure them until the next day, when Larry can be reunited with his unconsumed beers, unless his frat decided to “eliminate” them overnight. Weaknesses in the system include the fact that all of these people coming between Larry and his beer—the sober monitors and ID checkers and militarized barkeeps—are Larry’s fraternity brothers, who are among his closest buddies and who have pledged him lifelong fealty during candlelit ceremonies rife with Masonic mumbo jumbo and the fluttering language of 19th-century romantic friendship. Note also that these policies make it possible for fraternities to be the one industry in the country in which every aspect of serving alcohol can be monitored and managed by people who are legally too young to drink it.
Clearly, a great number of fraternity members will, at some point in their undergraduate career, violate their frat’s alcohol policy regarding the six beers—and just as clearly, the great majority will never face any legal consequences for doing so. But when the inevitable catastrophes do happen, that policy can come to seem more like a cynical hoax than a real-world solution to a serious problem. When something terrible takes place—a young man plummets from a roof, a young woman is assaulted, a fraternity brother is subjected to the kind of sexual sadism that appears all too often in fraternity lawsuits—any small violation of policy can leave fraternity members twisting in the wind. Consider the following scenario: Larry makes a small, human-size mistake one night. Instead of waiting for the slow drip of six warm beers, he brings a bottle of Maker’s Mark to the party, and—in the spirit of not being a weirdo or a dick—he shares it, at one point pouring a couple of ounces into the passing Solo cup of a kid who’s running on empty and asks him for a shot. Larry never sees the kid again that night—not many people do; he ends up drinking himself to death in an upstairs bedroom. In the sad fullness of time, the night’s horror is turned into a lawsuit, in which Larry becomes a named defendant. Thanks in part to the guest/witness list, Larry can be cut loose, both from the expensive insurance he was required to help pay for (by dint of his dues) as a precondition of membership, and from any legal defense paid for by the organization. What will happen to Larry now?
Gentle reader, if you happen to have a son currently in a college fraternity, I would ask that you take several carbon dioxide–rich deep breaths from a paper bag before reading the next paragraph. I’ll assume you are sitting down. Ready?
“I’ve recovered millions and millions of dollars from homeowners’ policies,” a top fraternal plaintiff’s attorney told me. For that is how many of the claims against boys who violate the strict policies are paid: from their parents’ homeowners’ insurance. As for the exorbitant cost of providing the young man with a legal defense for the civil case (in which, of course, there are no public defenders), that is money he and his parents are going to have to scramble to come up with, perhaps transforming the family home into an ATM to do it. The financial consequences of fraternity membership can be devastating, and they devolve not on the 18-year-old “man” but on his planning-for-retirement parents.