Hazing Rituals and Wrongful Deaths

Wikipedia released a “List of Hazing Deaths in the United States” documenting at least one university hazing death each year from1969 to 2017. A comprehensive study of hazing by the University of Maine’s National Collaborative for Hazing Research and Prevention found hazing to be a widespread problem that affects nearly half of all students in the nation’s colleges and universities.

Hazing generally refers to activities that humiliate, degrade, abuse, or endanger students as a condition of joining a social organization or team on a college campus. Hazing is sometimes a harmless rite of passage. Some acts of hazing, such as being told to sing a song in front of a student union, are less harmful than others. When hazing leads to death or serious injury, however, the victims and the parents of deceased victims turn to personal injury lawyers to vindicate their rights.

Hazing rituals commonly require students to drink excessive amounts of alcohol. In some cases, requiring a student to get drunk as a condition of joining an organization may only induce a hangover, but hazing rituals have too often caused students to die from alcohol poisoning.

Other harmful hazing rituals identified by the University of Maine include isolation, sleep deprivation, exposure to harsh weather without protective clothing, and participation in sex acts. In April 2018, the Alpha Beta Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, located at Fort Valley State University in Georgia, was accused of running a sex ring to pay for the initiation of new members.

Even less extreme acts of hazing can have devastating consequences. While hazing does not always result in physical injury, it can be so emotionally traumatic that it drives a student to contemplate or even commit suicide. Many states have adopted laws that prohibit hazing, but the laws tend to be weak and are rarely enforced.

Wrongful Deaths Caused by Abusive Hazing

The parents of Jordan Hankins recently sued Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and its local chapters after their daughter, a student at Northwestern, committed suicide in response to hazing. The lawsuit documents a history of hazing that AKA failed to control. Hankins was allegedly subjected to a variety of emotionally abusive conduct by sorority members.

Like most wrongful death lawsuits involving hazing, Jordan’s parents allege that AKA and other defendants were negligent in their failure to recognize that the hazing could cause serious harm. While proving that a suicide was caused by hazing is not always possible, the parents’ lawyers allege that Jordan told sorority members who hazed her that she suffered from PTSD and that the hazing was making her depressed. Continuing to bully and abuse Jordan despite awareness of the risk that their conduct could provoke serious harm may be powerful evidence of negligence.

In another case, a drum major at Florida A&M was required to “run a gauntlet” on the band bus as other students beat him. The drum major subsequently died from his injuries. His parents brought a wrongful death suit that was settled for $1.1 million.

Wrongful Deaths Caused by Alcohol Intoxication

Requiring students to drink excessive amounts of alcohol is a common initiation ritual. A student at Northern Illinois University died after drinking about 27 ounces of vodka in 75 minutes during a pledge event. His parents settled a hazing claim against Pi Kappa Alpha for $14 million. The parents know the money will not bring their son back to life, but they wanted to send a message to the fraternity and to others that it is no longer acceptable to regard hazing as a harmless part of college life.

A similar lawsuit in West Virginia was settled for an undisclosed sum. The insurer for West Virginia University contributed $250,000 to the settlement. The rest was paid by other defendants, including Kappa Sigma. As part of an initiation ritual, a student was encouraged to drink an entire bottle of 100 proof whiskey. His parents sued for wrongful death.

A college football player at the University of Dayton suffered brain damage after team members forced him to drink a dangerous amount of alcohol. He presented evidence that school staff members were aware of the drinking ritual but did nothing to stop it. He recently settled a lawsuit against the university for an undisclosed sum.

The parents of a student at LSU recently sued the university and Phi Delta Theta for the student’s wrongful death. The suit alleges that the student died from alcohol poisoning during a forced-drinking ritual.

When hazing causes death or serious injury, lawsuits send an important message to schools and student organizations. If you or your loved one suffered serious harm because of hazing, a personal injury lawyer can help you pursue justice.

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