(MCT) — ORLANDO, Fla. — A judge on Wednesday will be asked to throw out a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the mother of Florida A&M University drum major Robert Champion, based on evidence that Champion willingly participated in the hazing that killed him.
But lawyers for Pamela Champion, who represents her late son's estate, challenged FAMU's view that he volunteered to take part in the fatal hazing ritual, and portrayed the drum major in written arguments as a victim who eventually yielded to overwhelming social pressures.
Pamela Champion, who earlier this month rejected FAMU's offer of $300,000 to settle legal claims against the school, also has sued Fabulous Coach Lines, which owns the bus where the hazing took place, and the bus driver.
While Robert Champion's reluctant participation in the ritual, known as "Crossing Bus C," is irrelevant in the ongoing felony hazing prosecutions of 10 members of FAMU's Marching 100, the issue could be pivotal in the civil case.
In court filings, all three civil defendants have argued that Champion willingly assumed a dangerous risk when he walked onto Bus C to be hazed Nov. 19, 2011, by band members after the Florida Classic football game in Orlando.
They cite a provision in state law that says, "It shall be a defense to any (civil) action for damages for personal injury or wrongful death . . . that such action arose from injury sustained by a participant during the commission or attempted commission of a forcible felony." They also insist Champion was participating in a forcible felony: hazing.
In court documents, lawyers for the Champion family took issue with that position.
"FAMU essentially argues that its student, Robert Champion, was a criminal accomplice to his own death and, as such, he is not entitled to compensation from the state or its agents," attorney Kenneth Bell said in the filing. "FAMU knew that serious injury and death were likely outcomes of hazing. At the very least, FAMU long facilitated and tacitly endorsed its famous band's infamous hazing."
Although FAMU staged mandatory anti-hazing workshops and required band members to sign no-hazing pledges, Bell argued that a deeply entrenched hazing culture at FAMU was a "form of institutionalized coercion." He pointed out that FAMU band members had been critically injured in hazings before Champion died.
"What if FAMU neglects to enforce its anti-hazing codes and student pledges: Is FAMU still automatically absolved from all liability if a hazing death occurs during a school-sponsored outing at which it knows hazing has occurred for decades?" Bell wrote.
A friend and fellow drum major, Keon Hollis, told sheriff's detectives that he and Champion, 26, had hoped to win the percussion section's respect by submitting to the hazing.
Joseph Little, a law professor at the University of Florida who has followed the case, said the judge is not likely to rule in FAMU's favor and toss the lawsuit if there are disputed issues of fact about Champion's participation.
"It would appear to me that there is enough (disagreement) here for the judge to say, 'I'm not going to end this case now,' " he said.
If unable to persuade the judge to rule in its favor, FAMU wants the judge to set aside the civil case until the criminal cases are resolved. Two former band members pleaded no contest to felony hazing and were placed on probation by Judge Marc Lubet for relatively minor roles in Champion's death. Ten others are awaiting trial.
Champion's lawyers also said the criminal cases have delayed fact-gathering efforts.