Florida A&M Moves to Dismiss Hazing Death Suit. Sovereign Immunity a Problem for Injured Victims in Florida

Florida A&M University responded last week to the wrongful death suit filed against it by the parents of Robert Champion, the young drum major who died at the hands of fellow marching band members during a notorious hazing incident that took place in Orlando last November. Triggering a tide of national media criticism, FAMU asked the Orange County Circuit Court to dismiss claims against it on grounds that Mr. Champion’s submission to hazing was itself an illegal act, and that, in any case, the University did all that it was required to do in the way of discouraging hazing practices.

According to a September 11, 2012 Orlando Sentinel report, the attorney for Mr. Champion’s family was shocked by FAMU’s blame-the-victim defense strategy, and he continues to maintain that FAMU is liable in damages because it failed to take available measures to end the culture of hazing that influenced members of its famous Marching 100 band, including Mr. Champion, to perform the “gauntlet” ritual that ended Champion’s life.

Civil Claim For Events That Included Alleged Criminal Activity by Others

FAMU’s court filing includes an alternative request that draws attention to another dimension of this case, which is the alleged criminal nature of the beatings that led to Mr. Champion’s death. The University is asking that if the lawsuit is not dismissed outright, then it be postponed until criminal prosecutions of band members charged in the hazing have been concluded. Twelve marching band members are currently fighting felony charges brought against them under Florida’s anti-hazing law. FAMU is apparently hoping that convictions of the band members will somehow reduce or erase its own liability for the activities that caused student Champion’s death. This, however, is not the way things are likely to work, because Florida’s anti-hazing law, and a body of court decisions that have addressed hazing, quite clearly impose on universities responsibilities that are not negated by the criminal acts of others.

An Educational Institution’s Independent Duty to Protect

Florida’s anti-hazing law makes hazing a crime, but at the same time, it requires public educational institutions, like FAMU, to adopt written policies and enforcement programs to prevent and combat hazing.

The trend in court cases parallels this establishment of a university’s duty to prevent and combat criminal activity of which it is aware. What’s more, an often-cited court decision in a renowned Delaware hazing case has come to stand for the principle that once a university develops anti-hazing programs and policies, it undertakes an additional duty to take rigorous and effective action to enforce its anti-hazing rules.

Facing Down the Obstacle of Sovereign Immunity

The attorneys who move the Champions’ case forward will be dealing not only with questions involving FAMU’s enforcement of anti-hazing rules, and with the relevance, or irrelevance, of any criminal acts that were part and parcel of the fatal hazing process. They will also have to address FAMU’s assertion that any liability it may have for the events leading to Robert Champion’s death is limited, under Florida law, to the sum of $200,000, as a result of sovereign immunity, which caps civil damage payouts from State of Florida agencies, and other “public” institutions. The statutory cap or limitations on damages one may recover against state agencies was recently amended from the $ 100,000.00 to $ 200,000. However, even this slight increase is unjust.

On top of that, the reality cloaked with several fairly technical obstacles, coupled with the complicated set of underlying liability issues, is not atypical for cases in which a student has suffered an injury or died in connection with extracurricular higher education activities. More needs to be done to provide more recourse for injury and accident victims irregardless of whether the Defendant is the State of Florida or anyone else. In fact, Florida has some of the the strictest sovereign immunity laws in the United States. Cities, municipalities, and other agencies in the state of Florida are more than capable of defending themselves. So why should the state be shielded from full and complete legal responsibility than the rest of the public?
In fact, many state and local municipalities have more attorneys and staff than most private law firms. While there are some legal avenues available to combat statutory caps they are rare to succeed. For the most part, an injured party must first collect a judgement for over the statutory cap and then file a petition with the Florida legislature also called a “claims bill” which must get approved in both the house and senate, said Nicholas Gerson a plaintiff’s personal injury attorney in Florida.

The very tragic case of Robert Champion provides a good example of the important role, in cases of this nature, to be played by attorneys experienced in the fields of wrongful death, personal injury, and crime victims’ rights, in obtaining redress for victims and their families, and in favorably affecting public policy. To have help with these issues in our area, take a moment to contact the Miami injury attorneys at Gerson & Schwartz P.A. at (305)371-6000 or info@gslawusa.com.

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