Old photographs adorn the mantelpiece in Lee John Mynhardt's living room. In one, he's standing beside his parents and sister. In another, he's all smiles as he wraps his arms around some college buddies.
Today, Mynhardt, 28, is confined to a wheelchair, a quadriplegic unable to move from the chest down, burdened with medical expenses that at times have topped $10,000 a month. As a senior at Elon University in Elon, N.C., he broke his neck when he was grabbed from behind and dragged out of a keg party held by a chapter of one of the largest national fraternities, Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity Inc.
Mynhardt says he is a casualty of the strenuous efforts by national fraternities such as Lambda Chi to avoid paying compensation for deaths and injuries at their local chapters. After he sued, Lambda Chi Alpha and its insurer won court rulings that they weren't liable for his plight.
"As soon as there's an incident, national fraternities start distancing themselves," Mynhardt said at his Charlotte, N.C., home. "It's irresponsible."
National fraternities, which grant charters to campus chapters and collect dues from undergraduate members, have at least $170 million in annual revenue, along with valuable holdings ranging from real estate to Tiffany windows. The nonprofit organizations often protect their growing wealth by insulating themselves from legal and financial responsibility for a wave of alcohol and hazing-related deaths and injuries.
Besieged by lawsuits alleging negligent supervision, some of the biggest national fraternities have limited insurance coverage they provide to members, shielded funds in hard-to-tap foundations and cast blame on local chapters with few or no assets. Rather than intensify monitoring of branches, some fraternities have ceded daily supervision to undergraduates.
Such strategies are paying off. While at least 57 people have been killed or paralyzed since 2005 in incidents involving fraternities or their members, the low-profile national bodies have enjoyed increases of 13 percent in revenue and 29 percent in membership.