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Are There Limits to a School’s Liability for Serious of Fatal Harm Resulting from Hazing?

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In September 2012, Florida A&M University filed a motion asking the court to drop a wrongful death lawsuit. The parents of 26-year-old Robert Champion, who was killed in a hazing incident in November 2011, filed the lawsuit.

“In some cases, there are limits to a school’s liability for serious or fatal harm resulting from hazing,” explained California personal injury attorney James Ballidis.

Champion’s parents believed that the school should bear some responsibility, as well as the bus company and driver. They filed lawsuits against these parties. His parents claim that FAMU has a “long history” of knowledge and tolerance of hazing, including past incidents that have caused students to be hospitalized.

The school indicated that the behavior Champion participated in was against school policy and that he had even attended an anti-hazing workshop. Further, he had seen others hazed in a similar way and made no attempt to stop the hazing, instead choosing to voluntarily participate. Because Champion participated in “unlawful” hazing, did not report what was going on and did not attempt to stop it, the school claims they are not liable for his death. There have been cases in which victims’ voluntary participation in hazing has prevented them from holding a school civilly liable for serious or fatal harm resulting from the hazing.

The Champion family will be entering into mediations with the school to resolve their lawsuit regarding the hazing incident. The case raises interesting questions about the responsibility of a school in what could potentially be described as “voluntary” hazing.

Florida has strict laws on hazing. The Chad Meredith Act, which became effective July 1st 2005, established a broad definition of hazing and made it a crime to commit an act of hazing at the high school or college level that creates a substantial risk of bodily harm. Participating in hazing is a misdemeanor if it creates the possibility of harm but is a third-degree felony if the hazing actually results in serious bodily injury.

In addition to the criminal sanctions imposed against those involved in hazing, schools may be held accountable for hazing injuries and deaths. However, the school must have breached some type of duty to the injured or deceased victim. In Florida, schools are required to have anti-hazing policies in place and to impose sanctions and penalties on students who participate in hazing. However, section 5 of the Chad Meredith Act stipulates that “nothing in this act” should “constitute grounds for any civil causes of action unless otherwise provided by law.”

The act, therefore, requires schools to be responsible for hazing policies and for punishing hazing but doesn’t expressly create a cause-of-action arising out of a school’s hazing policy. Instead, the school would be held liable for hazing based on other laws imposing a duty and punishing negligence. Florida has imposed such liability on schools in the past including, most notably, the Chad Meredith case in which the parents of 18-year-old Meredith were awarded $12.6 million in a negligence lawsuit when Meredith died during fraternity hazing at University of Miami.

Because Champion had opportunities to report the band to the school; because he had been educated about hazing; and because the school had policies in place, an argument could be made that the school should not be responsible. However, if evidence shows that the school knew of the hazing and did nothing to stop it, the mere fact of having anti-hazing policies in place may not be enough to preclude liability.

Additional articles on hazing, bullying, and other subjects relevant to civil law are available to the public free of charge through our office’s Preferred Friends and Clients Program.

If you would like to request one of these free resources, or to discuss a specific legal matter with a California personal injury attorney, feel free to call 866-981-5596.

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