Professor Gregory Parks addresses hazing ‘blame’ game in Huffington Post op/ed

After the death of Robert Champion last year, his parents decided to do what many parents would do. They sued who they thought was responsible.

In this case, they sued Florida A&M University (“FAMU”) for its failure to eradicate the hazing culture that had persisted at FAMU for years, likely decades — the hazing culture that resulted in their son’s death. In its response to the wrongful death lawsuit, through its attorney Rick Mitchell, FAMU responded with a 23-page motion to dismiss the lawsuit. It stated, “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. Under these circumstances, Florida’s taxpayers should not be held financially liable to Mr. Champion’s Estate for the ultimate result of his own imprudent, avoidable and tragic decision and death”. While the Champion family attorney Christopher Chestnut noted, “We cannot ignore the irony and audacity of an institution in blaming Robert for his death,” Champion’s parents say that FAMU is partly to blame for their son’s death.

In just the past few weeks, representatives of aspiring members of two other black student groups have sued those organizations over hazing issues. Christopher Rudder, 24, is suing Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity for alleged psychological and physical hazing that he suffered in 2009 while a student at Virginia State University. He seeks $1.7 million. Bernadette Carter, mother of Victoria T’yna-Ann Carter, is suing Delta Sigma Theta Sorority for the death of her daughter. Victoria Carter allegedly was hazed as she sought sorority membership at Eastern Carolina University. Due to sleep deprivation, she was killed in a car accident in 2010, when she fell asleep at the wheel.

While these deaths and injuries, and those suffered by many others, are tragic and problematic, it is a legitimate question to ask how much “blame” the aspiring members share. In part, it is a legal question. On the criminal side, at least sixteen states have language eliminating consent defenses in their anti-hazing statutes. On the civil side, Alabama is one of the few, if not the only, state that employs the assumption of risk doctrine to completely bar recovery for hazing against fraternities and sororities. Other jurisdictions recognize contributory negligence, which bans all recovery to the plaintiff due to his own negligence. Most jurisdictions, however, adhere to the doctrine of comparative negligence — reducing the amount of damages a plaintiff can recover in a negligence claim based on the plaintiff’s percentage of fault toward the injury. As such, both civilly and criminally, courts at least can and do entertain the notion that hazing victims can play some role in their hazing experiences.

Read the full op/ed  here.