Hazing has been around forever, and despite attempts to eradicate it from high schools, colleges, and even workplaces, nary a year goes by without a huge hazing story emerging. Although many instances end with slaps on the wrist and penalties that are softened after the media heat dies down, cases that end in serious injury or death understandably outrage parents and communities and land the perpetrators in criminal and/or civil court. Here are 10 such cases that ended with lawyers fighting it out.
This case made national headlines in late 2005, eight months after Chico State University Matthew Carrington died of water intoxication during “Hell Week” of the Chi Tau fraternity. Carrington had been forced to drink from a constantly refilled five-gallon water jug while doing calisthenics in sewage in a basement, which caused his brain and lungs to swell. Prosecutors took the unusual step of charging frat members with felonies. In November 2005, in a courtroom packed with national media outlets, two frat brothers pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, with one sentenced to a year in jail and another to six months.
2. Seamons v. Snow:
It took seven years for Brian Seamons to get his day in court. As a sophomore at Sky View High in Smithfield, Utah, the backup quarterback was pulled out of the shower by teammates, tied naked to a table, and displayed to a girl he had dated. His parents sued the football coach (who played the whole thing off as “hazing”), the principal, the school, and the school district, not over the actual hazing but the fact that he had to leave the school over the “hostile environment” he felt after he reported it. The case went all the way to the U.S. Court of Appeals, which basically said his free speech had been violated, but he’s 23 now and let’s all just move on with our lives.
Florida A&M’s Kappa Xi chapter became the first hooligans to test the state’s tough new anti-hazing law in 2006, which made hazing a serious criminal offense if it ends in serious injury. Marcus Jones qualified, as four days of beatings with paddles and punches with boxing gloves left him with a ruptured ear drum and a blackened, bloodied backside. Five of the frat boys were tried for assault but only two got prison time. The Jones family also sued the five men in civil court, later adding to the defendants list the president of the frat’s southern province and a local businessman who owned the warehouse where the pledges were beaten.
As often as it takes place on college campuses, it’s common to think of hazing as solely a student activity. But a few landmark lawsuits have been filed over hazing in the workplace, like this one from 1998. Oil-rig worker Joseph Oncale’s hazing at the hands of his coworkers included sodomy with a bar of soap and threats of rape. At the time, employers actually used hazing as a defense because victims of same-sex discrimination had no legal recourse. After two court rulings against him, the nation’s highest court found in favor of Oncale, saying Title VII protected him from workplace harassment even from the same sex.
One of the most brutal hazing incidents ever ended with criminal charges for six high school football players and a civil case settled for $5.25 million. Somehow trash-talking about girlfriends escalated into six upperclassmen holding down six younger players and sodomozing them with broom handles. Some of the upperclassmen struck plea deals and received second-degree felonies, while the ringleader got two years in a juvenile facility. The New Mexico Public Schools Insurance Authority was hit with the bill for the civil suit, whose defendants had included the school superintendent and even a state senator.
In March 2007, when 18-year-old Gary DeVercelly Jr. died with a .426 blood alcohol level after a frat party, his parents placed the blame at the feet of officials at his school, Rider University. You can’t put a price on a life, but in their lawsuit against the school the DeVercelly’s sought the staggering amount of $75 million. Although the suit was settled out of court for a “significant” sum, they also sued the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity and several of its members. In addition, the school agreed to terms like banning alcohol from Greek events on campus, and the PKT frat was dissolved.
Another famous workplace hazing case was notable for the strain put on taxpayers to foot the bill for settling it. Black firefighter Tennie Pierce sued the city of L.A. in 2005 when his fellow firefighters fed him spaghetti with dog food in it. (Pierce was accustomed to demanding people “feed the Big Dog,” his nickname.) His claims of racial discrimination were weakened by the facts that a) he frequently had participated in the hazing of other firefighters, and b) the hazing wasn’t racial. Nevertheless, the city agreed to settle for $1.43 million, then lost a suit and had to pay two fire captains $2.5 million for racially discriminating against them by suspending them over the hazing.
The law that was used to nail the Kappa Alpha Psi guys was a result of the hazing death of this young man in late 2001. A jury determined that two Kappa Sigma fraternity members at the University of Miami were 90% at fault for allowing the freshman Meredith to attempt a swim across a frozen lake while twice the legal drinking limit. His parents were awarded $12.6 million for negligence in his death. Four years later, the Chad Meredith Act was signed into law by Gov. Jeb Bush.
As of the time of this writing, this case is still in the early stages, but it’s clear that it will be a seminal hazing case when all is said and done. Once again, Florida A&M is the setting. Drum major Robert Champion of the school’s famous “Marching 100″ band was beaten to death by fellow band members at the back of a bus. Already 13 people have been charged, making it one of the biggest cases ever in terms of the number of defendants, and other hazing cases at the school going back 50 years are also starting to emerge. The trials begin Oct. 8, 2012.
In Arman Partamian’s autopsy, his blood-alcohol level at time of death was estimated as high as .55, an astronomically high level. Taken to a bedroom and left there unattended, the 19-year-old SUNY Geneseo sophomore succumbed to alcohol poisoning and died in March 2009, causing his father to sue six members of the unsanctioned frat known as the PIGS for wrongful death in the amount of $2.5 million. Three of the brothers were charged with criminal offenses but let off with misdemeanors, and the elder Partamian is still seeking justice in the courts.