FAMU blames hazing victim for his own death: Heartless or prudent?

Florida A&M University’s assertion that drum major Robert Champion is to blame for his own death after a hazing ritual last year will be a test of schools' legal responsibility to control hazing.

Joseph Brown III/The Tampa Tribune/AP/File
Robert Champion, a drum major in Florida A&M University's Marching 100 band, performs during halftime of a football game in Orlando, Fla., in this November 2011 file photo.

Florida A&M University said Tuesday that senior drum major Robert Champion's decision to take part in a violent hazing ritual, even after signing a university pledge that he would not participate in hazing, absolves the university and Florida taxpayers from liability for his death.

FAMU’s assertion goes to the core of a still-evolving area of liability law: Are institutions proxy parents for their students, or do they have no duty to act as custodians? The civil lawsuit brought by Mr. Champion's parents against FAMU argues that adult students are not at fault for their own deaths if they take part in hazing, and a Florida state law seems to back that viewpoint, legal experts say. But FAMU's rejection of the claim sets up a potential test case for the law.

“In many states, you can’t recover [in civil court] if you are the cause of your own harm, but states that have enacted hazing legislation [including Florida] recognize that this act involves a unique type of coercion which removes that defense,” says Doug Fierberg, a hazing law attorney at Bode & Grenier in Washington, D.C. “In other words, you can argue that by joining the band, Champion understood that there might be some hazing, but that’s not a defense" for the university.

"If the Champion case causes this to change, it will only put more young people at risk of tremendous injury and death,” says Mr. Fierberg.

Known both for excellence and long-established bonding rituals, including hazing, the Florida A&M University marching band is undergoing major reform after the death of Champion, a Georgia native, who died in November from compounded injuries received on a bus. Thirteen former band members have been charged with hazing, a third-degree felony in Florida, and the university president has stepped down. This week, the school also began an aggressive new anti-hazing policy that mandates all students sign an online pledge to avoid hazing.

A series of serious hazing incidents have beset African-American universities, in particular, during the past decade, leading to allegations of punching, caning, slapping, and choking incidents that have resulted in broken ribs, kidney failure, punctured lungs, blindness, and death. 

“There are a lot of psychological theories on why people persist in hazing, but the fact is, especially at African-American fraternal organizations, there’s a lot of pressure on students to allow themselves to be hazed and … that hazing participants know fairly quickly that this is not going to be a walk in the park, but yet they persist,” says Gregory Parks, a law professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., and an expert on hazing dynamics at historically black colleges. 

According to a blunt, 23-page answer to the Champion family’s allegations, FAMU said Tuesday that Champion was aware of the dangers, having witnessed two band mates undergo a brutal bus-beating ritual ahead of him. The letter also said Champion had debated with friends whether or not to go through the ritual in order to improve his ranking in the tight-knit Marching 100 band.

FAMU lawyers added that the school could not “predict or prevent this shocking and depraved hazing incident, and therefore, it would be unfair and illogical to hold FAMU to a different and higher level of omnipotence.”

“Respectfully, as a 26 year old adult and leader in FAMU's band, Mr. Champion should have refused to participate in the planned hazing event and reported it to law enforcement or University administrators,” they added.

For Champion’s parents, the university’s legal opinion only bolsters their view that the university willfully refused to stop hazing traditions, and by doing so helped violent traditions flourish.

“We cannot ignore the irony and audacity of an institution in blaming Robert for his death," Christopher Chestnut, the family’s lawyer, told the Orlando Sentinel. "Blaming students for hazing allows the culture of hazing to become deadly."

For universities, the irony might be that they are more vulnerable when they actually take steps to rein in hazing – because, in doing so, they tacitly acknowledge that they know it is going on. In Champion’s case, he had taken a university pledge against hazing several months before his death.

“Nobody wants to take responsibility [in these cases], and everybody wants to say it’s someone else’s fault,” says Professor Parks at Wake Forest. “Parents themselves are often members of black fraternal organizations and know what the signs are, kids who haze don’t want to take responsibility, and universities want to pass the buck. The problem for universities, though, is if they’re having hazing seminars or have a known history of hazing, they can’t act as if they don’t know what’s going on.”

The damages the Champion family are seeking are unspecified, but Florida law has a soft $300,000 damage cap, meaning that the legislature can vote to increase that limit if the lawsuit is successful.

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