Americans in vast numbers-motivated perhaps in part by the possibility of financial recompense, and in part by a new national impetus to move personal suffering from the sphere of private sorrow to that of public confession and complaint-began to sue those who had damaged them
A nimal House, released in 1978, at once predicted and to no small extent occasioned the roaring return of fraternity life that began in the early ’80s and that gave birth to today’s vital Greek scene. The casting of John Belushi was essential to the movie’s influence: no one had greater credibility in the post-’60s youth culture. If something as fundamentally reactionary as fraternity membership was going to replace something as fundamentally radical as student unrest, it would need to align itself with someone whose bona fides among young, white, middle-class males were unassailable. In this newly forming culture, the drugs and personal liberation of the ’60s would be paired with the self-serving materialism of the ’80s, all of which made partying for its own sake-and not as a philosophical adjunct to solving some complicated problem in Southeast Asia-a righteous activity for the pampered young collegian.
It was an entirely new kind of student who arrived at the doors of those great and crumbling mansions: at once deeply attracted to the ceremony and formality of fraternity life and yet utterly transformed by the social revolutions of the past decades. These new members and their countless guests brought with them hard drugs, new and ever-developing sexual attitudes, and a stunningly high tolerance for squalor (never had middle- and upper-middle-class American young people lived in such filth as did ’60s and ’70s college kids who were intent on rejecting their parents’ bourgeois ways). Furthermore, in 1984 Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, with the ultimate result of raising the legal drinking age to 21 in all 50 states. This change moved college partying away from bars and college-sponsored events and toward private houses-an ideal situation for fraternities. When these advances were combined with the evergreen fraternity traditions of violent hazing and brawling among rival frats, the scene quickly became wildly dangerous.
Fraternities, eager to provide their members with the independence that is at the heart of the system-and responsive to members’ wish for the same level of freedom that non-Greek students enjoyed-had largely gotten rid of the live-in resident advisers who had once provided some sort of check on the brothers
Adult supervision was nowhere to be found. Colleges had little authority to intervene in what took place in the personal lives of its students visiting private property. With these conditions in place, lawsuits began to pour in.
The mid-1980s were a treacherous time to be the defendant in a tort lawsuit. Personal-injury cases had undergone a long shift to the plaintiff’s advantage; the theory of comparative negligence-by which an individual can acknowledge his or her own partial responsibility for an injury yet still recover damages from a defendant-had become the standard; the era of huge jury verdicts was at hand. Many fraternity lawsuits listed the relevant college or university among the defendants, a practice still common among less experienced plaintiff’s attorneys. These institutions possess deep reservoirs of liability coverage, but students rarely recover significant funds from their schools. As Amanda Andaverde’s attorneys discovered the hard way, a great deal of time and money can be spent seeking damages from institutions of higher learning, which can be protected by everything from sovereign immunity and damage caps (in the case of public payday loans in Connecticut universities), to their limited ability to monitor the private behavior of their students. But for the fraternities themselves, it was a far different story.