Florida A&M Responds to Student’s Hazing Death: Not Their Job To Protect Students Off-Campus

Street gangs and the violence they bring suck, right?  With the upcoming elections, it seems to be about the one thing we can all agree on.  These criminal enterprises are barbaric throwbacks to an age where people solved their problems with force, rather than words.  Yet it’s odd how we, as a civilized society, denounce gang mentalities, but at the same time seem to still embrace some of their cruel rituals.  For instance, is a hazing initiation into a club or fraternity any different than jumping a dude into a gang?  Not really, especially since you can die in either situation.

A Florida A&M University student learned this the hard way last year.  Drum major Robert Champion, 26, died from injuries sustained during a hazing ritual conducted by members of the school’s Marching 100 band.  Champion was allegedly punch, kicked, and otherwise brutalized as part of an initiation procedure.  The beating occurred on a tour bus outside of a hotel.  The marching band was scheduled to perform at a school football game.

As you can imagine, Champion’s death didn’t sit well with his family or the public.  Many of the band members involved in the incident are now facing felony hazing charges, all of them were immediately suspended by the school, and the university’s president even resigned.

FAMU has maintained that it has always had a zero-tolerance policy against hazing and in no way condones the attack on Champion.  Not surprisingly, this hasn’t stopped Champion’s family from suing the school.  In essence, they alleged the school was negligent in allowing the hazing incident to occur and should’ve stopped it.

However, FAMU recently filed a motion for summary judgment.  It’s common for parties to do this in lawsuit, but considering the nature of the case, such an act can come off pretty insensitive.

In case you weren’t already aware, a motion for summary judgment is essentially a request by one party for the judge to immediately rule in their favor because based on all the facts so far, no triable issue exists.  Basically, the party is alleging that the other side doesn’t have a valid case against them and that the judge should throw the lawsuit out or force the other party to pay up.

The former is what FAMU wanted the court to do.  It’s a pretty bold move seeing as how the scandal has devastated the school’s image.  And a move like this isn’t likely going to win them anyone back.  It seems like a bad move all-around, not just from a PR perspective, but arguably from a legal one, too, since it isn’t likely that they’ll win it.

There have been numerous student hazing lawsuits against other schools in the past.  And though in many of those cases the schools were victorious, the difference in this case is that the organization responsible for the hazing was an official college group, and not simply a sanctioned fraternity.

FAMU claimed in their motion that they had no legal duty to protect Champion because he was an adult who volunteered to undergo the hazing at an off-campus location apart from any school-sponsored event.  One of the elements required to fulfill a negligence claim is establishing legal duty.  That is to say, Champion’s family would have to show that FAMU was responsible for ensuring their son’s safety since he was a student at their school.

But, while FAMU’s argument may seem persuasive, the fact of the matter is that Champion was still on a school-sponsored trip.  Even if the event had already ended, the school was still responsible for ensuring everyone got back safely, therefore, at the very least, it’s debatable that the school still owed a legal duty to protect Champion.

And because a legitimate dispute exists as to whether there was a legal duty, that automatically means a motion for summary judgment on this basis would fail.  Therefore, FAMU shouldn’t have filed it in the first place.

Now arguably, it’d be bad lawyering not to try to end any case early.  But considering how big a role FAMU’s image plays in resolving this lawsuit, the school’s lawyers should’ve held back on this one.

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