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When Illegal Hazing Is a Crime and the Associated Civil Lawsuits

When Illegal Hazing Is a Crime and the Associated Civil Lawsuits

Hazing is generally associated with fraternities or sororities that make the new members go through humiliating and dangerous initiation rituals. These rituals could include drinking contests, sleep deprivation, kidnapping and sometimes physical or sexual assault as well. Hazing is also prevalent in sports teams and other groups at high school and college. Under the hazing policies at school, colleges and universities, students have to face disciplinary action if they participate in various hazing activities. They are also liable to face criminal charges if a hazing activity is dangerous and results in injuries to the participants. Schools, organizations, and individuals who have a responsibility to prevent hazing but fail to do so, may also be sued. A hazing litigation lawyer or hazing injury attorneys can explain the consequences of illegal hazing.

Is hazing a crime

Most states have specified some forms of hazing as crime. Typically, when hazing poses serious risk of injury, it’s considered misdemeanour under the law. However, definitions of criminal hazing differ from state to state.

In few states hazing is considered as a crime if it results in injury, while in several other states hazing is taken as felony if the victim is injured, thereby increasing the punishment. Few states consider hazing a crime also when it affects the mental health of the victim. In some states which do not have specific laws defining hazing, participants could still face general criminal charges, like assault and battery, if it involves violence or any illegal activity.

Hazing bystanders or accomplices can face criminal charges

“In a handful of states, bystanders, coaches, or other school employees could face criminal charges for encouraging or failing to report hazing.”       

For instance, people in Texas can be charged guilty of “personal hazing” if engage in, encourage or assist in hazing; or if they fail to report to school officials if they have knowledge about hazing to have occurred or is being planned.

In Massachusetts, bystanders at the hazing scene could face penalties for not reporting to law enforcement agencies. A hazing litigation lawyer, however, can contest the charges.

Consent to Hazing cannot be a criminal defence

Because of peer pressure and for a sense of belonging, most students agree to hazing, as the price to join the fraternity, football team or other groups which have status on the campus. Those accused of hazing often plead not guilty because of the victim’s willingness to participate. However the argument doesn’t hold ground in criminal cases. Courts generally don’t allow what is known as “consent defence” in criminal cases involving hazing. Many state laws explicitly prohibit it.

When can the hazing victims Sue

In some states where hazing is outlawed, victims can file civil lawsuits to seek compensation for their injuries and damages. For example, hazing victims in California can sue participants as well as the organization they were supposed to join, if it had sanctioned the hazing. 

Even if there are no specific law that allow victims to sue, if hazing resulted in injury or death, the general rules for personal injury lawsuits or wrongful death suits would apply.

As it is not easy to collect significant damages from individuals, like students, faculty members, or fraternity officers, hazing victims often sue organizations or institutions who may have the capability to pay larger compensation.

The success of these lawsuits depend on how courts view the specifics of the case- whether the organisations owed the plaintiff a duty of care, and whether the concerned officials knew about the hazing but failed to stop it.

For instance, courts have sometimes found that universities were negligent of failing to enforce the rules against hazing even when they knew that rules were being violated.

In some other cases, the courts have held the national fraternity organisations responsible for hazing activities of their local chapters, which were legally authorised to act on behalf of the national organisation, when they had prior knowledge about hazing and that their preventive measures weren’t effective.

When Assumption of Risk is a Defence in Hazing Lawsuits

Courts have sometimes dismissed civil lawsuits by hazing victims because they had assumed the risk of getting injured by voluntarily taking part in hazing activities that they were aware of as being dangerous.

For example the Alabama Supreme Court accepted a fraternity’s defence on grounds of “assumption of risk” to rule against the plaintiff, an adult pledge, who had regularly participated in dangerous hazing activities for a full academic year before he decided to sue for his injuries.

However, some courts have rejected the “assumption of risk” as defence where the victims didn’t fully understand the risks or their participation weren’t totally voluntary.  For example, a South Carolina appellate court rejected the fraternity’s defense argument that the fraternity pledge who had died of excessive drinking during “hell night” had assumed the risk of participating. It said the pledge, at some point during the night, no longer knew what he was doing. If you or your child has criminal charges against you for involvement in illegal hazing, consult a hazing litigation lawyer at the earliest.

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