On June 6th, 1892, Yale University student Wilkins Rustin was pledging to be a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon and experienced Fraternity Hazing. During his initiation, he was blindfolded and led into the street. He was then instructed to run as fast as he could. Not surprisingly, Rustin ran head-first into a street pole. Although injured and unconscious, his fraternity brothers concluded at the time that he did not require medical care. Rustin, however, died several days later because of the internal trauma he suffered.[i]

More than one hundred and fifteen years later, similar events continue to happen on college campuses around the country. Pledges are forced or encouraged to take risks that they normally would never take, and, far too often, their fraternity brothers or sorority sisters fail to get them necessary medical care when things go wrong. The tradition of hazing is long, horrible, and enduring in the United States.

In fact, there have been well over 100 documented fraternity and sorority hazing deaths in American history dating back to 1838, when John Butler Groves reportedly died in a hazing incident at the Franklin Seminary in Kentucky.[ii] The most recent case is that of Tim Piazza, a 19-year old pledge of Beta Theta Pi at Penn State University, who died on February 4th, 2017, after being instructed to drink an enormous amount of alcohol and then falling down a flight of stairs. He suffered a collapsed lung, ruptured spleen, and brain damage as a result. At the time of the fall, Piazza had a BAC of nearly .40.

Piazza was moved to a couch by his fraternity brothers. Throughout the night, Piazza was verbally unresponsive and attempted to get up from the couch numerous times, only to fall again. At least one fraternity brother, Kordel Davis, urged the group to call 9-1-1 to get Piazza emergency medical care, but he was rebuffed and overruled by the others. Despite Piazza’s obviously poor condition, his fraternity brothers did not contact paramedics until nearly 12 hours later. As a result of the incident, 18 fraternity brothers were charged with crimes, including 8 who were charged with involuntary manslaughter.[iii]

A study by the National Collaborative for Fraternity Hazing Research and Prevention at the University of Maine concluded that 55% of students that join a fraternity, sorority, sports group, or other student group experience hazing.[iv] For the past several decades, a staple form of hazing on college campuses has been compelling new initiates into a group to consume huge amounts of alcohol causing alcohol deaths. However, hazing also continues to take many other forms, including: forcing pledges to undertake humiliating actions, making pledges eat or drink disgusting or even inedible things, ridiculing or beating pledges, requiring pledges to exert extreme physical labor on some meaningless task, or requiring pledges or members to carry out some illegal act as a condition of membership or to ‘prove’ their worth.

Defining Hazing

There is no set definition of hazing, but generally, hazing establishes conditions of membership that require a person to do or withstand something that is meant to cause them mental or physical harm.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines hazing as simply “an initiation process involving harassment.”[v] HazingPrevention.org offers a more detailed definition, stating that hazing is “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.”[vi]

The line between lighthearted initiation rituals and fraternity hazing is something that schools and courts have long struggled to define. Most universities and colleges around the country have developed their own internal definition of prohibited hazing that students should be aware of. Some of these schools define hazing very broadly. For instance, Cornell University defines hazing as:

An act that, as an explicit or implicit condition for initiation to, admission into, affiliation with, or continued membership in a group or organization, (1) could be seen by a reasonable person as endangering the physical health of an individual or as causing mental distress to an individual through, for example, humiliating, intimidating, or demeaning treatment, (2) destroys or removes public or private property, (3) involves the consumption of alcohol or drugs, or the consumption of other substances to excess, or (4) violates any University policy.[vii]

44 states and Washington D.C. have also passed laws defining and criminalizing hazing.[viii] Only Alaska, Hawaii, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Wyoming lack an anti-hazing statute. Some states criminalize hazing that causes or is likely to cause physical or mental harm. For instance, the state of Washington criminalizes hazing “that causes, or is likely to cause, bodily danger or physical harm, or serious mental or emotional harm.” [ix]

Most states, however, have only criminalized conduct that causes or is likely to cause physical harm. Illinois, one of these states, defines hazing as:

Doing any act, or causing any situation, that recklessly or intentionally subjects a student or other person in a school, college, university, or other educational institution of this State, to the risk of bodily harm for the purpose of induction or admission into any group, organization, or society associated or connected with that institution, if: (1) the act or situation is not sanctioned or authorized by that educational institution; and (2) the act results in bodily harm to any person.[x]

The Legal Impact of Fraternity Hazing

Hazing can lead to serious legal repercussions for those involved. For students, hazing is normally a violation of the Student Code of Conduct, which can lead to disciplinary action from the school. Additionally, as mentioned, nearly all states criminalize hazing. In Illinois, the crime of hazing is a Class A misdemeanor, except that hazing that results in death or great bodily harm is a Class 4 felony.[xi] A Class A misdemeanor conviction in Illinois can lead to a one-year jail sentence; a Class 4 felony conviction in Illinois can lead to a sentence of up to three years imprisonment. Hazing can also often constitute a number of other crimes, including assault, battery, reckless conduct, and crimes related to contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

In cases involving death, manslaughter charges are even possible, as evidenced by the Tim Piazza case discussed above. Similarly, a Florida State band leader was sentenced to six years in prison for involuntary manslaughter for the death of band member Robert Champion in 2011. Champion died after taking part in a ritual called “Crossing Bus C”, which required band members who wanted to be eligible for leadership positions to walk from one end of the bus to the other while they were kicked, punched, and hit with various objects by the other band members.[xii] Champion made it through the gauntlet, but, by the time it was over, he was in severe pain, had trouble breathing, and complained to bandmates that he couldn’t see despite his eyes being wide open. A few moments later, he was dead.

Less than one year after Champion died, another hazing death occurred. David Bogenberger died of alcohol poisoning while pledging the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity at Northern Illinois University. In 2015, 22 fraternity members were convicted of misdemeanor crimes related to the death, including five who were found guilty of “reckless conduct.” The attorney for the state, Richard Schmack, stated that it was the largest hazing prosecution in U.S. history.[xiii]

Hazing can also lead to significant civil liability for individuals and schools. Negligence, assault, battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress are all possible claims. A few states have passed statutes specifically creating civil liability for hazing.[xiv] Institutions that allow hazing to occur, either knowingly or negligently, can also be liable. For instance, in Furyk v. University of Delaware, the University of Delaware was found to be negligent after a Sigma Pi Epsilon pledge was seriously burned in a fraternity hazing incident. Even though the University had no direct knowledge of the hazing in question, the court found that the University breached “a duty to regulate and supervise foreseeable dangerous activities occurring on its property. That duty extends to the negligent or intentional activities of third persons.”[xv]

Hazing lawsuits have settled or included awards for increasingly large amounts over the past two decades. In 2000, the family of Jack Ivey settled a lawsuit against Pi Kappa Sigma for $2 million after Ivey died of alcohol intoxication during a hazing activity,[xvi] and in 2004 the Kappa Sigma fraternity was ordered to pay the family of Chad Meredith $12,600,000 million after fraternity members instructed Chad to swim across a lake while he was extremely intoxicated.[xvii] Following the convictions related to Bogenberger’s death, his family made a negligence claim against Pi Kappa Alpha and the fraternity members responsible. The claim was originally dismissed, but Illinois’ First District Court of Appeals reversed the court’s dismissal and the case is still currently being litigated.[xviii]

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Legal References Cited:

[i] Nuwer, Hank, Wrongs of Passage: Fraternities, Sororities, Hazing, and Binge Drinking, Indiana University Press, 2001.

[ii] Id.

[iii] COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA OFFICE OF THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY, Criminal Charges Announcement, May 5, 2017, available at https://www.scribd.com/document/347435327/Beta-Theta-Pi-Charges-and-Presentment (last accessed Sept 13, 2017).

[iv] Michael Winerip, When a Hazing Goes Very Wrong, NYTs, April 12, 2012, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/15/education/edlife/a-hazing-at-cornell.html (last accessed Sept 13, 2017).

[v] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hazing (last accessed Sept 13, 2017).

[vi] https://hazingprevention.org/home/hazing/facts-what-hazing-looks-like/ (last accessed Sept 13, 2017).

[vii] Cornell University Code of Conduct, Article II.A.1.f, (last accessed Sept 13, 2017).

[viii] https://hazingprevention.org/home/hazing/statelaws/ (last accessed Sept 13, 2017).

[ix] Wash. Rev. Code § 28B.10.900.

[x] 720 Ill Comp. Stat. §120.

[xi] 720 Ill Comp. Stat. §120.

[xii] Christina Ng, Inside the Bus During Drum Major Robert Champion’s Fatal Hazing, ABC News, May 24, 2012, available at https://abcnews.go.com/US/hazing-assault-famu-drum-major-robert-champion-detailed/story?id=16415215 (last accessed Sept 13, 2017).

[xiii] Daria Sokalova, _22 ex-NIU fraternity members sentenced in 2012 hazing death,_Daily Chronicle, May 2015, available at https://www.daily-chronicle.com/2015/05/07/22-ex-niu-fraternity-members-sentenced-in-2012-hazing-death/adgv8zt/?page=1 (last accessed Sept 13, 2017).

[xiv] See, eg., Ohio Civ. Code § 2307.44

[xv] 594 A.2d 506 (Del. 1991).

[xvi] $2 million settled in hazing death incident, Associated Press, Wed 2, 2000.

[xvii] Dangerous hazing now a felony, thanks to Chad Meredith Act, Associated Press, Jun 8, 2005, available at https://www.heraldtribune.com/news/20050608/dangerous-hazing-now-a-felony-thanks-to-chad-meredith-act (last accessed Sept 13, 2017).

[xviii] Bogenberger v. Pi Kappa Alpha Corp., 2016 IL App (1st) 150128