Learning that your child has suffered a serious or life-threatening injury while she or he is away at college can be devastating.
When parents learn that the injury resulted from a hazing incident, the fact that the injury occurred can be even more angering and infuriating.
While many parents support their children’s plans to join a Greek life organization, nobody should have to expect that their kids will be subject to a risk of severe personal injury due to hazing rituals.
To be clear, all bodily injuries arising out of hazing incidents are preventable. Yet despite the fact that all hazing injuries could be avoided, fraternities and sororities across the U.S. continue to engage in dangerous behaviors that put college and university students at risk of great bodily and psychological harm.
In recent years, more hazing lawsuits have been filed, and colleges and universities are being held accountable. More institutions of higher education are closing down fraternities and taking away the rental or occupancy licenses held by the Greek organizations.
If you were injured in a hazing incident, or if you have a child who got hurt in a hazing incident at a college or university, you may be able to file a claim for compensation. An aggressive hazing injury lawyer can begin working on your case today.
What is Hazing?
Many of us have heard of the term “hazing” and may even have seen news reports about hazing incidents at nearby colleges or universities. Many people attended colleges and joined fraternities or sororities where they were hazed and may even have participated in hazing rituals. But what, precisely, is hazing? According to HazingPrevention.org, hazing is defined as:
“Any action taken or any situation created intentionally that causes embarrassment, harassment, or ridicule and risks emotional and/or physical harm to members of a group or team, whether new or not, regardless of the person’s willingness to participate.”
That definition further clarifies that hazing rituals or incidents involving hazing can vary widely depending upon when or where they occur, but they all typically have a set of common factors. According to HazingPrevention.org, those factors include the following:
- “Power differential between those in a group and those who want to join a group, or between senior and junior members of a group”;
- “Intentional initiation rite, practice, or ‘tradition’ involved”’ and
- “Willingness to participate does not absolve responsibility for either party.”
To be clear, just because a college student who is pledging a fraternity or a sorority gives either express or implied consent to participate in a hazing ritual does not mean that those responsible for the hazing incident and any subsequent injuries are free from liability.
Although many states have laws concerning comparative fault or contributory negligence (which can diminish a plaintiff’s recovery in a lawsuit or bar the plaintiff’s recovery altogether), hazing incidents are different in most situations. Although the injured person may have agreed to participate in a hazing ritual in order to join a fraternity or sorority, that fraternity or sorority — and the university itself — are not free from blame.
In Michigan, there are serious criminal and civil ramifications for persons and groups that are involved in hazing activities. Perpetrators of harmful hazing can face jail time and stiff penalties and organizations can be sued for compensation in a civil lawsuit. Our experienced personal injury lawyers are ready to help you pursue your legal rights.
Types of Hazing
There are generally three different groups that categorize hazing activities. These are:
Subtle Hazing: Essentially harmless activities that emphasize the imbalance of power or seniority between existing members and new members. They can be activities that ridicule or embarrass the new members, but are mostly in good fun. Examples could include name-calling or requiring members to take quizzes and tests on trivial information.
Harassment Hazing: Hazing that requires new members to do things that cause physical stress or mental anguish in order to feel like they belong to the group. This might involve requiring a member to wear humiliating clothes or demand that a freshman football player to carry the equipment bags of more senior teammates.
Violent Hazing: Activities that can cause physical and psychological harm to the member. Examples of violent hazing include the following:
- Physical trauma, like beating, paddling, branding or other assaults
- Forced coercion of alcohol or drug consumption, especially when demands are excessive and involve minors
- Exposure to harsh weather elements without proper clothing or protection
- Excess water drinking
- Kidnapping or abduction
- Public nudity
- Forced criminal or illegal activities
While we usually thinking about hazing incidents as rituals that take place at fraternities or sororities related to the initiation of a new member, almost any group can engage in dangerous hazing rituals.
Indeed, sports teams, recreational clubs, and even honor societies can and have been known to participate in hazing rituals. While hazing can take many different forms, a list from HazingPrevention.org identifies the following as common hazing practices, or forced activities, that are designed “for new recruits to ‘prove’ their worth to join” the group or organization:
- Forcing someone to consume alcohol;
- Forcing someone to consume extremely spicy foods;
- Requiring a person to consume other uncomfortable or dangerous substances;
- Requiring someone to endure physical hardship, such as intense physical labor;
- Requiring someone to endure psychological hardship, such as staying awake for an unnatural period of time;
- Humiliating a person;
- Isolating a person;
- Physically harming another person through beatings, or other actions designed to produce pain; and/or
- Requiring someone to participate in illegal activities.
Is Hazing a Crime in Michigan?
The State of Michigan has laws that make certain types of hazing a crime. The specific statute that makes hazing illegal is MCL 750.411t. The law applies to a fraternity, sorority, association, company, social group, athletic teams, and students at educational institutions.
The law defines “hazing” as an intentional, knowing, or reckless act by a person acting alone or acting with others that is directed against an individual and that the person knew or should have known endangers the physical health or safety of the individual, and that is done for the purpose of pledging, being initiated into, affiliating with, participating in, holding office in, or maintaining membership in any organization.
Prohibited activities under the statute include any form of physical brutality; excessive activities or those that jeopardize the physical or safety of the participant; requiring consumption of food, liquid, alcohol or drugs, and any illegal or criminal activities.
The criminal penalties for anyone who violates this statute include both misdemeanor and felony offenses. Offenders can be subject to incarceration ranging from 93 days to 15 years in prison. Fines and penalties up to $10,000 can also be imposed depending on the severity of the hazing.
Hazing Laws in the United States
States across the country have specific hazing laws in place. These laws make hazing a criminal offense and can come with significant penalties.
There is no federal anti-hazing law that currently exists. Given that hazing laws are not federal but rather are state laws, it is important to know what the state laws in the place where the hazing incident occurred. We want to provide you with examples of some of these state laws.
For instance, Michigan has Garret’s Law (M.C.L. 750.411t), which makes it unlawful to engage in the hazing of an individual.
If a person is found guilty of hazing an individual and that hazing incident result in physical injury, then the person can be convicted of a misdemeanor offense and sentenced to up to 93 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
When the hazing incident results in an impairing bodily injury or death, the person can be charged with a felony offense and can face a prison sentence from five years to 15 years and a fine of up to $10,000. Michigan defines hazing as:
“An intentional, knowing, or reckless act by a person acting alone or acting with others that is directed against an individual and that the person knew or should have known endangers the physical health or safety of the individual, and that is done for the purpose of pledging, being initiated into, affiliating with, participating in, holding office in, or maintaining membership in an organization.”
Hazing includes any of the following incidents that are done for the purpose of hazing as it is defined above:
- Physical brutality, which may involve “whipping, beating, striking, branding, electronic shocking, placing of a harmful substance on the body, or similar activity”;
- Physical activity, which may involve “sleep deprivation, exposure to the elements, confinement in a small space, or calisthenics, that subjects the other person to an unreasonable risk of harm or that adversely affects the physical health or safety of the individual”;
- An activity “involving consumption of a food, liquid, alcoholic beverage, liquor, drug, or other substances that adversely affects the physical health or safety of the individual”; and/or
- An activity that “induces, causes, or requires an individual to perform a duty or task that involves the commission of a crime or an act of hazing.”
As you can see, Michigan’s anti-hazing law is extremely detailed. Many other states also make hazing illegal under statutory law, but the laws are not as specific as Garret’s Law in Michigan. An example is the anti-hazing law in Illinois (720 ILCS 120/5), which says:
“A person commits hazing who knowingly requires the performance of any act by a student or other person in a school, college, university, or other educational institute of [Illinois], for the purposes of induction or admission into any group, organization, or society associated or connected with that institution if … the act is not sanction or authorized by that educational institution … and the act results in bodily harm to any person.”
In Illinois, hazing is a Class A misdemeanor offense, which can result in up to 364 days in jail and a fine of up to $2,500. Under Illinois law, if hazing result in great bodily harm or death, then it becomes a Class 4 felony offense, which can result in up to three years in prison and a fine of up to $25,000.
While many states do have anti-hazing laws, there are still some states in the U.S. that do not make hazing expressly unlawful through statutory law. Indeed, Alaska, Hawaii, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Wyoming have no specific anti-hazing laws.
Civil Lawsuits for Hazing Activities
Victims of hazing activities have the legal right to file a civil lawsuit against the individuals, organizations, and institutions that have involvement with or sponsor the group or team.
Universities, colleges, and fraternal organizations have their own policies that strictly prohibit restrictions activities. These can result in severe penalties to both the groups and their members. On extreme occasions, a fraternity may be shut down completely and the senior members may be expelled from school. In recent years, the University of Michigan has taking severe actions against Greek organizations, including removing a fraternity for violent physical hazing.
In addition to these actions, a victim can sue the organization for harm caused by the hazing. Several years ago, the Michigan State Marching Band got in trouble for hazing new band members. In fact, a lawsuit was filed by band member who was required to perform bizarre hazing rituals that were sexual in nature, including public nudity and masturbation.
Other notable cases have been filed around the United States against fraternities for deaths caused by excessive drinking of pledges.
A federal lawsuit was filed against Penn State University after a pledge died as a result of his fraternity brothers forcing him to drink to excess. Due to his intoxication, he fell down the stairs and suffered fatal injuries. The other members did not summon medical help and left him there to suffer until it was too late to help.
Recoverable Damages in a Hazing Lawsuit
Hazing lawsuits have the same types of recoverable damages as in any personal injury case. These include both economic losses (medical bills, lost income, and others) and non-economic losses. Non-economic losses include pain and suffering, fright and shock, embarrassment and humiliation, and psychological and emotional damages.
In the event of a tragic death, the surviving family members can file a Michigan wrongful death lawsuit. These cases demand compensation for the pain and suffering of the decedent before death, the loss of companionship of the family members, and economic damages as well.
There is no limit to the amount of a settlement payout in a hazing lawsuit. Most Greek organizations, universities, high schools, sports teams, and other groups have insurance policies with high limits to pay significant settlements to a victim. If there are multiple victims from the same event, most insurance policies provide coverage for each person.
History of Hazing Incidents
While hazing incidents involving fraternity and sorority liability may be getting more press due to prominent lawsuits and organization closures, it is important to know that hazing incidents have been occurring for nearly two centuries.
An article in The Economist cites data gathered by Hank Nuwer, a journalism professor at Franklin College. Nuwer has been researching and writing about hazing among students for nearly three decades, and he cites some of the following incidents involving hazing over the last 200 years:
• 1838: This is the first recorded incident of a hazing death that Nuwer locates. The death involved an 18-year-old student, John B. Groves, in Franklin, Kentucky. While details surrounding the death are not entirely clear, Nuwer cites a class hazing as a factor in the death.
• 1847: At the prestigious Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts, a student named Jonathan D. Torrance died after being drenched in ice water as part of a “freshman visitation” hazing stunt.
• 1873: A Cornell University student affiliated with the Kappa Alpha Society (a fraternity) died after falling into a gorge while on a mandated dark walk. The student, Mortimer N. Leggett, had pledged the fraternity, and as a hazing ritual, his family alleged that he was blindfolded during the nighttime walk that led to his death.
• 1892: A Yale University student, Wilkins Ruskin, died “during the secret society initiations” of the fraternity Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE). The newspaper article that appeared after his death indicated that he was blindfolded and “told to run down the street.” He was struck by a “carriage” and later died of what appeared to be internal injuries.
• 1899: Another Cornell University student, Edward F. Berkeley, was pledging the Kappa Alpha Society when he died in a hazing incident. The student drowned.
• 1905: Kenyon College student Stuart L. Pierson was struck by a train after being left on a bridge by fraternity brothers during a hazing ritual for the Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) fraternity.
• 1913: Purdue University student Francis W. Obenchain died during a hazing ritual that required first-year students to fight upperclass students “under a water tank.”
• 1915: A Virginia Military Institute (VMI) student was killed in a hazing ritual that involved being beaten with bayonets by upperclass students.
• 1917: A pledge to the College of the City of New York fraternity Phi Sigma Kappa died as a result of illness after being forced into a wet blanket by fraternity members and rolled on the ground.
• 1919: A Colgate university student drowned after a hazing incident resulted in him being dropped off on an island, unable to swim back to shore.
• 1928: Another Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) pledge death at the University of Texas occurred when a student, Nolte McElroy, was “electrocuted while crawling between two bedsprings charged with electric current” as part of a hazing incident, according to a local newspaper.
• 1935: A Dickinson College pledge to the Phi Delta Theta fraternity died of blood poisoning after falling in a hazing incident.
• 1940: A University of Missouri Pledge to the Theta Nu Epsilon fraternity, Hubert L. Spake, Jr. died from alcohol intoxication after being required to consume an excessive amount of alcohol.
• 1945: Robert G. Perry, a St. Louis University pledge to Phi Beta Pi, was “burned fatally” in a hazing ritual. According to a local newspaper, this hazing ritual was a particularly gruesome one. The newspaper reported that Perry was “led blindfolded on his hands and knees into a room at the fraternity house and flipped on a table. A solution . . . was then poured over his bare chest . . . and the electrode applied.” Other students involved in the hazing indicated that Perry’s body caught on fire.
• 1959: A Kappa Sigma pledge at the University of Southern California died while attempting to swallow a large piece of liver.
• 1970: A sorority pledge to the Alpha Gamma Delta sorority as Eastern Illinois University died in a hazing ritual involving a moving car.
• 1975: A fraternity pledge from Washington State University died of pneumonia after participating in “heavy exercises” during a hazing ritual.
• 1986: An 18-year-old Phi Kappa Psi pledge at the University of Texas died after being forced to drink alcohol. When he died, he had a blood alcohol concentration of 0.43.
• 1994: At Southeast Missouri State, Michael Davis was beaten to death by fraternity members during a hazing for Kappa Alpha Psi.
• 1998: A University of Michigan sorority pledge Courtney Cantor died as a result of falling out of a window after consuming alcohol and, potentially, a date-rape drug.
Numerous additional hazing deaths occurred in the 20th century, and dozens more have happened over the last 20 years.
Theories of Liability in Hazing Cases
Who is responsible when a student dies in a hazing incident while pledging a fraternity or sorority? As we have mentioned above, states with anti-hazing laws make clear that a student’s willingness to participate—to be hazed—does not remove liability from those involved in the incident. Yet who can families sue?
For example, are all members of the fraternity or sorority who participated in the hazing ritual liable in some capacity for a death? Are only the leaders of the fraternity or sorority responsible? Can the college or university itself be held responsible for failing to oversee a fraternity or sorority? Is the college particularly at fault if it already knew of a hazing death but did not close down the fraternity or remove its license? These questions are complicated ones, and there are a variety of theories of liability in hazing cases depending upon the specific facts of the case.
In the early 2000s, an article in the Journal of Contemporary Health Law & Policy addressed present theories of liability in hazing lawsuits. Since then, numerous additional hazing lawsuits have been filed, and many have been discussed in online magazines such as Inside Higher Ed. We have collated information from these sources to provide you with information about potential theories of liability in hazing cases:
• Theory of negligence: This is a basic theory of liability that may be applied in cases of hazing injuries and deaths. Typically, a theory of negligence may be asserted in cases where the plaintiff attempts to hold a variety of parties responsible, such as the individual fraternity members, the college or university, and even the national organization (the national fraternity) responsible under the theory that any of these parties owe a duty of care to individual fraternity members or students. The theory of negligence is used in a number of the more specific theories that follow here, especially premises liability claims.
• Theory of in loco parentis: This is a theory that largely arises under education law, suggesting that the college takes the place of the parent(s) and therefore has responsibility for protecting its students from harm. While this theory might seem like an obvious one for holding a college or university responsible for injuries in a hazing incident, courts largely have discredited it as a potential theory of liability. Indeed, in the case Bradshaw v. Rawlings (1979), the court emphasized that colleges do not play the role of parents to students and do not owe that kind of duty of care to students. The court specifically stated: “Our beginning point is a recognition that the modern American college is not an insurer of the safety of its students . . . . College students today are no longer minors; they are now regarded as adults in almost every phase of community life.” For years following this decision, courts across the country considered it persuasive authority and followed its reasoning. Accordingly, courts concluded—and continue to conclude—that the theory of in loco parentis is not a valid or useful one when it comes to a college or university’s liability for a hazing injury or death.
• Landowner or premises liability: When a fraternity is located on a college campus and the building is owned by the college or university, then the college or university may be liable as the landowner for failing to control the conduct of the fraternity or sorority on its premises. With a theory of landowner or premises liability, there is the idea that the property owner has a duty to protect anyone on the premises from known or foreseeable dangers. Someone using this theory of liability might argue that the college or university has knowledge that hazing incidents occur at fraternities, and thus has knowledge that there is a foreseeable risk to pledges at the fraternity or sorority. Accordingly, the college or university may be liable as a property owner for failing to protect a pledge from foreseeable dangers or risks.
• Assumption of responsibility: The college or university may be liable under a theory that it assumed responsibility for the negligent or criminal actions taken by fraternities or sororities on campus. The theory of assumption of liability is most common in cases where the college or university knew about dangerous incidents of hazing on the campus and prohibited hazing. Once the college or university prohibits hazing, the theory is that it assumes responsibility for hazing injuries and deaths that occur on campus. In other words, the college or university assumes a duty to protect students from injuries resulting from hazing given that the institution has knowledge of the existence of hazing, its dangers, and thus has prohibited it. This can be a difficult theory to prove, however. In the case Yost v. Wabash College (2014), for example, a court in Indiana found that there was no special relationship that would have resulted in the college assuming a responsibility to protect.
• Vicarious liability: This is a theory that could be used to argue that the national organization (national fraternity or sorority) is responsible for a hazing injury or death. Sometimes this is known as a theory of respondeat superior. In order for vicarious liability to exist, the local fraternity or sorority chapter member must be found to be acting as an agent of the national organization. In addition, there must be evidence that the national organization had control over the local chapter. In short, there must be an “agency relationship” and the party that would be held vicariously liable must have control. This theory has been argued in numerous hazing lawsuits and typically has not been successful.
• Title IX: This is a newly used theory related to gender inequality in Greek life. The argument is that male students pledging fraternities are at greater risk of harm, and that universities do not pay as close attention to fraternity risks as they do to sorority risks, and that this is a violation of Title IX. Parents of a Louisiana State University student currently are testing this theory after suing the university after their son died in a hazing incident.
Verdicts and Settlements in Hazing Lawsuits
Some of the hazing lawsuits discussed above were successful, while others were not. The NCCPS cites some of the following brief verdicts and settlements as successful hazing lawsuits:
• DeVercelly Rider University (2007): A “significant” monetary settlement after the family sought $75 million for a hazing death involving a ritual alcohol drinking test at Phi Kappa Tau fraternity.
• Starkey v. Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity (2008): Student (Starkey) died after an alcohol-related hazing death. One of the fraternity brothers responsible settled with the family for $500,000, and the family also reached an undisclosed settlement with SAE fraternity.
• Griffin v. Sigma Alpha Mu Fraternity (2012): Family of student killed in Sigma Alpha Mu hazing incident settled with the fraternity and several of its members in a multi-million dollar settlement.
How Colleges and Universities are Preventing Hazing Incidents on Campus
Did you know that about 40% of college and university students report that they know about hazing incidents taking place on their campuses? That information comes from HazingPrevention.org, and it underscores the pervasiveness of hazing.
Indeed, about 50% of all students who are involved in sports, clubs, and other organizations at U.S. colleges and universities have undergone some sort of hazing ritual themselves.
Given that there is widespread knowledge that hazing occurs, it is extremely important for higher ed institutions to take steps to prevent it.
Some colleges and universities have instituted changes designed to prevent hazing and to punish organizations that continue to engage in hazing. However, by and large, these changes have come about as a result of serious and even deadly hazing injuries that have occurred on college campuses.
Some examples of ways that universities are attempting to prevent hazing include but are not limited to the following:
- Revoking fraternity and sorority licenses to operate.
- Temporarily closing specific fraternities and sororities alleged of engaging in hazing.
- Refusing to renew leases for fraternities and sororities that have engaged in hazing.
- Creating campus-wide anti-hazing rules.
- Establishing specific disciplinary procedures for fraternities or sororities that violate anti-hazing rules.
Is Consent to Hazing a Legal Defense?
In general, a participant’s consent to hazing is not a valid defense in either a criminal or civil lawsuit.
While consent can be a defense to many alleged criminal activities, it is not to the offense of hazing. In a civil lawsuit, a defendant can argue that the participant agreed to the activity but this type of defense would likely be prohibited by the trial judge.
Get Help from Our Michigan Hazing Lawsuit Lawyers
If your child was injured in a hazing incident, it may be possible to file a civil lawsuit.
Hazing incidents certainly are not new at colleges and universities in the U.S., but serious injuries and deaths arising out of hazing incidents are gaining more local and national attention.
As such, more fraternities and the institutions of higher education that support them are being held liable for serious and fatal injuries.
An experienced hazing lawsuit attorney can discuss the facts of your case today and can develop a plan for moving forward with a claim. Contact Buckfire Law Firm to learn more about how a personal injury attorney at our firm can assist with your lawsuit.
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