While the story has faded from the headlines, the family and friends of Robert Champion are still mourning his death in an alleged hazing incident at Florida A&M University. As our Panama City personal injury law firm discussed in these pages last summer, 26-year-old Champion died on November 19, 2011 following a hazing ritual associated with the school's famed Marching 100 band. An autopsy revealed the cause of death to be internal bleeding, reportedly incurred when Champion was beaten by band members as he walked through their bus and was punched, kicked, beaten, and hit with drumsticks during an initiation ritual. The terrible tragedy is still being discussed among higher education administrators nationwide and in the context of resulting litigation, including the complex area of lawsuits against colleges and universities.
On Friday January 18, per a report by WJHG, FAMU hired Bryan Smith to serve as the school's Anti-Hazing Czar. The former director of an Atlanta charity, Smith beat out 60 other candidates for the job. Interim President of the University Larry Robinson announced that Smith has already developed a plan to stop dangerous hazing traditions at the school. FAMU is also looking to hire a new compliance officer, a search reportedly nearing completion, and a new band director to replace the individual fired in the wake of Champion's death.
Our team applauds efforts to prevent future hazing tragedies at the school, and we hope other colleges and universities are also considering whether a similar incident could occur in their own community. One issue discussed in the wake of Champion's death is whether an individual can sue a college or university on either injury or wrongful death grounds.
The key issue to consider in answering this question is whether the school is public or private.
Private universities may receive tax breaks and use public student loan programs, but they are not operated by a government entity and operate primarily on private funding. Some are not-for-profit and others are for-profit, but private colleges are treated as private corporations, and they can be sued as such in the same way any private company might be sued. So the answer is simple - you can sue a private college for injury or wrongful death claims. As with any lawsuit, a knowledgeable lawyer is crucial to receiving the full amount of monetary damages due, whether you ultimately settle your claim or go to trial.
The issue of suing a college or university is more complex when the institution is public. Public colleges are primarily supported by state funds, often relying on state government subsidies. This means that the doctrine of sovereign immunity is relevant. Sovereign immunity is a centuries-old principle that says you cannot sue the government except to the extent it actively waives this immunity. Section 768.28 of the Florida Statutes waives this immunity in certain tort actions and allows individuals to sue a state entity for certain tort claims, including claims for personal injury or death based on the action or inaction of an employee within the scope of their employment duties. This means you can indeed bring a claim against a public college or university in Florida (the contours of immunity vary by state and answers may vary in other states).
However, these cases do have some special rules. The sovereign immunity waiver includes a damages cap. This limits recovery in a suit against a public college or university in Florida to $200,000 per person and $300,000 per incident. There are two exceptions:
Regardless of the amount of damages, filing a claim against a state entity requires meeting specific, complex, procedural requirements. Also, even if the claim itself is subject to a 4-year limitations period, a claimant must submit a written claim to the state agency and the Department of Financial Services within 3 years of the incident.
So, yes, you can sue a public college or university. However, there are specific procedural rules that govern these suits, and the amount you can recover is limited by law. It is even more important to hire an experienced law firm in order to navigate the requirements, or you risk losing even the most valid claim.
Our Panama City injury law firm believes that colleges, universities, and their employees should be responsible for their actions. Attorney Pittman has extensive experience in both injury and wrongful death claims. He also has specific experience bringing claims against the state and state entities, a background that can be essential to helping win a case against a public college or university (or an employee thereof). Call to arrange a free consultation.