Illegal Hazing: Crimes and Civil Lawsuits

By E.A. Gjelten, Author and Editor
Hazing may lead to school discipline, criminal charges, or personal injury lawsuits. Learn when hazing is a crime and when victims may sue fraternities, sports teams, or schools that don’t try to stop dangerous hazing.

Most people associate hazing with fraternities and sororities that have new members go through humiliating and sometimes dangerous initiation rituals, including drinking contests, sleep deprivation, kidnapping, and even physical or sexual assault. But hazing is also common in sports teams and other groups at both the high school and college level.

Under hazing policies at most colleges, universities, and secondary schools, students face school discipline if they participate in a wide range of hazing activities. But they may also face criminal charges, depending on how dangerous the hazing was and where it happened. And if the victim is hurt, participants could be sued—along with organizations, schools, and individuals who have a responsibility to prevent hazing but look the other way.

When Hazing Is a Crime

Most states have laws that specifically make some forms of hazing a crime. Typically, it’s a misdemeanor when the hazing poses a serious risk of injury. But the definitions of criminal hazing vary from state to state. For example:

  • In a few states, including Illinois and Michigan, hazing is a crime only if it actually resulted in injury. In several other states, hazing becomes a felony when the victim is injured—increasing the penalties.
  • Many states, including Ohio and Massachusetts, define hazing as including activities that endanger the victims’ mental health.

In the handful of states without laws that specifically outlaw hazing, students who participate in hazing rituals that involve violence or other illegal activities could still face more general criminal charges, such as assault and battery.

When 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—at least in some circumstances. For instance, individuals in Texas can be found guilty of “personal hazing” if they engage in, encourage, or assist in hazing; or if they don’t make a written report to school officials after learning firsthand that hazing has happened or is being planned (Tex. Educ. Code § 37.152). In Massachusetts, bystanders at the scene could face fines for not reporting hazing to law enforcement, but only if they could’ve done so without endangering themselves or others (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 269, § 18).

Consent to Hazing Isn’t a Criminal Defense

In the face of peer pressure and the desire to belong, most students go along with hazing as the price of joining the fraternity, football team, or other group with status on campus. Those accused of hazing often claim that they shouldn’t be guilty of a crime because of the victim’s supposed willingness to participate. But that argument generally doesn’t fly—at least in criminal cases. Courts generally won’t allow what’s known as the “consent defense” in criminal cases involving hazing—and many state laws explicitly prohibit it.

When Hazing Victims May Sue

Some of the states that outlaw hazing specifically allow victims to file civil lawsuits in order to seek compensation for their injuries or other damages. For example, California law says that hazing victims may sue any participants in the hazing, as well as the organizations they were hoping to join—if the group’s agents or officers sanctioned the hazing (Cal. Penal Code § 245.6).

Even if the hazing laws don’t specifically allow victims to sue, the general rules for personal injury lawsuits or wrongful death suits would apply in hazing cases that resulted in injury or death. In order to be successful, the person filing the lawsuit (the plaintiff) must prove that:

  • the person or organization being sued (the defendant) owed the plaintiff a “duty of care
  • the defendant didn’t meet that responsibility (was “negligent”), and
  • that negligence caused harm to the plaintiff.

It can be difficult to collect significant damages from individuals (such as other students, faculty members, or fraternity officers who condoned the hazing). So hazing victims often sue institutions or organizations that may have the resources to pay hefty settlements or court awards. The success of these lawsuits largely depends on how courts view the specific circumstances in the case—particularly whether the organizations owed students a duty of care, and whether officials in those organizations knew about the hazing but didn’t take reasonable steps to stop it.

For instance, courts have sometimes found that universities were negligent by failing to enforce rules against hazing when they knew or should’ve known that fraternities were violating those rules. And some courts have found that national fraternity organizations may be legally responsible for hazing activities carried out in local chapters if they knew about prior hazing, knew their prevention measures weren’t working, and had a legal relationship that gave the local chapters authority to act on behalf of national organization.

When Assumption of Risk Is a Defense in Hazing Lawsuits

In some circumstances, courts have thrown out civil lawsuits by hazing victims because they had assumed the risk of getting injured by voluntarily participating in hazing activities that they knew were dangerous. For example, the Alabama Supreme Court accepted a fraternity’s “assumption of risk” defense to rule against the plaintiff, an adult pledge who had continued to participate in dangerous hazing activities for a full academic year before he sued for his injuries (Ex parte Barran, 730 So.2d 203 (Ala. 1998)).

However, other courts have rejected the assumption of risk defense where the victims hadn’t fully understood the risks or their participation wasn’t completely voluntary. In one case, for instance, a fraternity pledge died during “hell night,” when pledges were expected to drink excessive amounts of alcohol over a short period of time. The fraternity argued that he assumed the risk of participating, but the South Carolina appellate court found that the pledge no longer knew what he was doing at some point during the night (Ballou v. Sigma Nu General Fraternity, 352 S.E.2d 488 (S.C. Ct. App. 1986)).

Speaking With a Lawyer

If you or your child could be facing criminal charges for some level of involvement in hazing, you should speak with a criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. An attorney can explain how the law in your state applies to the circumstances in your case, as well as possible defenses you might have. And if hazing activities resulted in harm to you or your child, you might consider consulting with a personal injury attorney who can look at the facts in your case, discuss your legal options, identify potential defendants, and explain the special restrictions on lawsuits against public schools.

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