Reflecting a national surge in binge drinking by college students, fraternity mayhem today can be far more dangerous than the hijinks celebrated in the 1978 movie "Animal House." Since 2005, 52 students died and five were paralyzed in incidents linked to fraternities, according to data compiled by Bloomberg from lawsuits, news accounts and interviews. Nine fraternities, including some of the largest, are linked to 38 of the 57 cases, or two-thirds.
Eight students died in both 2011 and 2012. Those are the most fatalities in at least a decade, according to Hank Nuwer, a professor at Franklin College in Franklin, Ind., and author of four books on hazing. Two have died this year.
The risk of fraternity life is so great that only four insurers cover college-age men living together in chapter houses, said Ned Kirklin, who sells fraternity insurance for a unit of Willis & Co. To make coverage affordable, a group of fraternities self-insures part of the risk.
At colleges, which value fraternities as a lure to prospective students and breeding ground of generous alumni, it often takes a death or serious injury to spur discipline. California State University in Chico temporarily suspended Greek life in November after a senior pledge drank himself to death.
National fraternities don't always avoid liability. After becoming intoxicated at a 2011 New Year's Eve party at the University of Pennsylvania's Phi Kappa Sigma House, 20-year-old Matthew Crozier fell over a railing, hit his head and died. His parents received a $3 million settlement from the national fraternity, based in Chester Springs, Pa., and from a related corporation that owned the chapter house.
Greek life, with its secret rituals and traditions, fosters leadership and brotherhood, fraternity leaders said.
"Out of all the organizations on a college campus, fraternities and sororities are founded on the concept of high values and moral leadership," said Rick Barnes, a board member of the Association of Fraternal Leadership & Values in Fort Collins, Colo.