November 29, 2012
By MIKE SCHNEIDER Associated Press
Attorneys for Florida A&M University on Wednesday asked a judge to dismiss a lawsuit brought by the family of a drum major who died last year after being hazed by fellow band members, claiming Robert Champion was a willing participant in the ritual.
University attorney Richard Mitchell said Champion wasn't forced to board a bus parked outside an Orlando hotel where the hazing took place. He was an adult able to make his own decisions at age 26, and he had risen through the ranks of the famed Marching 100 band without taking part in hazing until that fateful night in November 2011, Mitchell said.
Champion’s willingness to take part in an illegal act gives the university immunity from the wrongful death lawsuit, Mitchell said.
“Robert Champion knew exactly what he was doing,” he said. “If Mr. Champion had not gotten on that bus, he would not have been hazed.”
Circuit Judge Walter Komanski didn't immediately issue a ruling.
Champion’s parents filed a lawsuit contending university officials did not take action to stop hazing even though a school dean had proposed suspending the Marching 100 band just days before their son died. The lawsuit also alleges that school officials fell short in enforcing anti-hazing policies.
An attorney for Champion’s family asked the judge to allow a jury to decide who was responsible for Champion’s death.
“A jury needs to decide how to allocate responsibility for the death of Mr. Champion,” said lawyer Kenneth Bell. “Please allow that to be heard.”
Champion’s parents, Robert and Pamela Champion of Decatur, Ga., rejected a $300,000 settlement offer from the university earlier this month. An attorney for the family, Chris Chestnut, said no further talks are taking place.
Ten FAMU band members face felony hazing charges in the case, while two others face misdemeanor counts. They have pleaded not guilty. Hazing that involves bodily harm is a third-degree felony in Florida.
“This is a commonsense case. It’s complex but common sense,” Chestnut said after the hearing. “There is a clear history of hazing at FAMU.”
Champion’s parents also are suing the bus company that operated the bus on which the hazing took place, as well as its driver. An attorney for the bus driver said her duty to protect the students ended when she dropped them off at the hotel.
An attorney for the bus company told the judge that Champion’s participation relieved them of liability.
“It is not an issue of whether he was a participant in hazing,” said Dick Ford, an attorney for Fabulous Coach Lines. “He certainly was a participant in hazing.”