Is a fraternity’s national organization liable for assault at a Maine chapter?

A former University of Maine sorority member who allegedly was assaulted at a fraternity party four years ago on the Orono campus wants Maine’s highest court to hold the frat house’s national fraternal organization liable for negligence and infliction of emotional distress.

Westbrook lawyer Thomas L. Douglas will argue for his client before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Wednesday.

Douglas could not be reached for comment on Monday, but in court documents he said his client believes a lower court made a mistake when it dismissed her claims against Delta Tau Delta Fraternity Inc. and its Orono affiliate, the Gamma Nu Chapter. Douglas wants the justices to overturn that decision, effectively sending the matter back to Penobscot County Superior Court for trial.

Court records show that the woman went to mediation in September 2013 and was able to settle her claims against a Gamma Nu Chapter member, who allegedly restrained her and assaulted her in his room on the evening of Sept. 17, 2010. The alleged incident occurred during the fraternity house’s “stoplight party” – a social gathering described in court documents as an opportunity for college students to wear certain colors of clothing to advertise their relationship status.

Douglas states in his court filing that fraternity member Joshua Clukey eventually pleaded guilty to simple assault and furnishing alcohol to a minor. But on March 17, the lower court dismissed the woman’s separate claims against the national fraternity.

“This is an important case of first impression in Maine,” Douglas wrote in his introductory remarks to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. “At issue is the liability of a national fraternity for the eminently foreseeable sexual assault of a young Maine woman by a fraternity chapter member.”

Douglas argues that his client was a guest of Delta Tau Delta and “therefore the national fraternity owed her a duty of reasonable care in taking all measures that were reasonably necessary to ensure her safety.”

“Like most national or international fraternities, Delta Tau Delta is organized in such a manner as to preclude liability for the actions of its local chapter members,” Douglas stated. “Although Delta Tau Delta’s constitution describes it as one organization comprised of the national and its local chapters, DTD alleges that its local chapters, including the Orono chapter, are wholly separate, self-governing unincorporated associations which can not maintain or be subject to suit in most jurisdictions.”

Douglas said Delta Tau Delta defines its relationship with local chapters as advisory in nature.

Wendell Large, one of three Portland-based attorneys named in court documents as representing Delta Tau Delta, could not be reached Monday for comment.

But in their filing, the attorneys argue that “Delta Tau Delta had no duty to monitor or restrict the activities between two adults behind closed doors of a private room in a leased fraternity house.”