Caitlin Flanagan’s “The Dark Power of Fraternities” at The Atlantic, an exposé of the “endemic, lurid, and sometimes tragic problems” that plague fraternities and how they avoid liability, is a fascinating and essential read. It’s one of the most thorough reports in recent memory of how powerful, wealthy interests insulate themselves from accountability for the harm they cause to individuals.
Before we get to the substance, the manner of Flanagan’s reporting deserves special mention. Rarely do press reports about the civil justice system give it this type of realistic, balanced treatment. Most reports treat the civil justice system as a spectacle that sometimes involves large sums of money, like a television game show, with trial lawyers filing lawsuits at random, corporate defendants who always acted in good faith paying to avoid jackpot justice, and a jury making up an answer based on junk science and sympathy. Surely we can’t take anything from the civil justice system seriously to inform our views on important issues of the day.*
Flanagan, however, appropriately portrays the civil justice system as the way our society determines responsibility for harms. It’s often the best way – sometimes the only way – to discover systemic threats to people’s safety. Civil liability is also typically the primary incentive corporations, associations, and vested interests have to reduce the risk of harm to others.
What Flanagan found when she looked at lawsuits brought by undergraduates for injuries while at school should cause any parent and future college student to think twice about the true meaning of campus safety: