Hazing Law Reform: The Search for Stronger Hazing Laws
By Erin Fine
In today’s society, where the majority of individuals are willing to risk more to fit in with their peers, there has been a rise of hazing-related injuries and deaths. With that, there has been a rise in criminal and civil hazing-related litigation. Unfortunately, hazing is not a new problem. It occurs almost everywhere in the world. The issue we are currently facing as a society is the need for stronger laws against the harasser, new methods of prevention and rights for pursuing justice in civil lawsuits.
Hazing-related incidents are undoubtedly on the rise. According to several reports and studies, it has been found that there has been at least one death caused by hazing every year since 1969 and forty deaths in the last ten years (2007-2017) alone.1 This statistic does not include hazing injuries and related incidents that did not result in death, as that statistic is more difficult to measure because such incidents are often unreported.2 Further, such victims do not realize they are being hazed, but believe the hazing is standard to become a member of certain organizations or teams. To that end, a study of college students found that 69% of students who belonged to a student organization reported they were aware of hazing activities occurring in student organizations other than their own.3
The majority of hazing stories in the news come after a brutal and unfortunate death or pending lawsuit brought against the organization members or the institution. There is also often talk of potential criminal charges against organization members or the educational institution, with the call for stronger hazing laws and punishments.
Hazing is also not limited solely to “Greek life” or on college campuses. In Alabama, which has some of the strongest hazing laws, there is currently a civil lawsuit pending against a school board and staff members, as well as criminal charges against several high school football players for a hazing incident that involved many players on the team.4 Under Alabama law, not only can the acting perpetrators be charged with hazing, but those present who “willfully acquiesce” to the commission of a hazing or fail to promptly report the incident may also be charged.5
One of the most recent hazing-related deaths is that of Max Gruver, a Louisiana State University student, who died during an initiation event in September 2017. In addition to taking legal action, Gruver’s parents began a campaign to strengthen hazing laws throughout the country.6 Further, since this hazing incident, Louisiana reformed its hazing laws to impose additional responsibility on individual and organizational perpetrators or bystanders.7
Many other states, like Illinois, are revisiting hazing laws and further developing case law to impose accountability on all players behind hazing incidents. In Illinois, hazing occurs when a person knowingly performs an act, or causes a situation, that recklessly or intentionally subjects a student or other person in 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.8 The criminal punishment for hazing incidents is a Class A misdemeanor.9 However, when a death occurs, the punishment is a Class 4 felony.10 In addition to criminal charges, victims or their family members are permitted to file a civil lawsuit relating to the incident.
For the longest time in Illinois, individual organization members were able to avoid civil liability because they were not considered “social hosts.” This meant that those providing or “gifting” alcohol while hosting a party were not liable for the actions of those guests that consumed the alcohol.11 After an alcohol related high school hazing incident in 2004, Illinois started to reform its laws with respect to hazing and liability. Specifically, it passed the Drug and Alcohol Impaired Minor Responsibility Act, imposing strict civil liability on any adult who intentionally supplied alcohol or drugs to a minor if it led to a minor’s intoxication, which caused a minor’s injury or death.12
In 2018, the Illinois Supreme Court examined under what circumstances individual and organizational defendants could be found liable in a hazing death.13 David Bogenberger, a Northern Illinois University (NIU) fraternity pledge, died as a result of a hazing incident that occurred in November 2012. His family subsequently sued the individual fraternity members and several other organizations and guests. The fraternity members claimed that they were not liable because Illinois did not recognize “social host liability, and the other defendants denied liability due to the fact that they were not members of the “participating” organization.”14 The trial court agreed.15
Because of the previous understanding of Illinois social host liability, the trial court in Bogenberger felt the individual defendants could not be liable in this situation.16 The Illinois Supreme Court, however, found that forcing an individual to consume alcohol eliminated any potential protections provided by the social host liability law.17 Specifically, the required consumption of alcohol was “not too remote” to serve as the proximate cause of intoxication and the resulting injury.18 The Court even found that the non-member sorority women, who assisted in the hazing, could all potentially face liability in this situation.19
The family also sued the fraternity’s NIU chapter and national organization, claiming that they should have taken more steps to prevent the hazing of pledges, and that the NIU chapter members were not properly trained for risk management. The Supreme Court found that the NIU Chapter and officers owed David a duty of care.20 However, the Court found that the national organization did not have a special relationship to David and could not be liable for the events that led to his death.21 Several other states have ruled similarly in hazing related incidents and deaths.22
In addition to civil liability, the defendants in the Bogenberger lawsuit, which included the involved members, campus fraternity chapter, and non-member sorority women participants, faced varying degrees of punishment as a result of David’s death. Specifically, the NIU chapter of the fraternity was suspended from the campus and NIU brought its own charges against the members and the other guests for violating the school code of conduct23.
All in all, Illinois is taking a step forward to prevent these unfortunate hazing incidents and deaths, by allowing families to maintain a civil suit against those individuals and organizations involved in such acts. This trend will hopefully serve to prevent individuals from participating in hazing, whether an actual perpetrator or a bystander facilitating the acts. Finally, although the Bogenberger Court found that the national chapter did not owe a duty in this case, this ruling will hopefully prompt national fraternity organizations to take preventative steps in managing and oversight of local chapters to stop hazing entirely and urge States to revisit their hazing laws.
1. Nuwerk Hank, “Hazing Deaths”, Sept, 20, 2018, available at http://www.hanknuwer.com/hazing-deaths/.
2. Finkel, Michelle, “Traumatic Injuries Caused by Hazing Practices,” 2002, available at http://njbullying.org/documents/hazing-EDarticleFinkel2002.pdf.
3. Babson College, “Important Hazing Statistics”, available at http://www.babson.edu/student-life/community-standards/hazing/Pages/important-hazing-statistics.aspx.
4. Smith, Cam, “Parents of Alabama football player injured in hazing attack file suit for $12 million”, USA Today High School Sports, May, 2018, available at https://usatodayhss.com/2018/parents-of-alabama-football-player-with-broken-arm-from-hazing-attack-file-suit-for-12-million.
5. Ala. Code § 16-1-23(c) (2018).
6. See The Max Gruver Foundation, https://www.maxgruverfoundation.com/about-the-foundation.
7. See John Bel Edwards Office of the Governor, http://gov.louisiana.gov/news/gov-edwards-signs-tougher-antihazing-legislation
8. 720 ILCS 5/12C-50 (2018).
11. See Bogenberger v. Pi Kappa Alpha Corp., 2018 IL 120951, ¶ 18.
12. 740 ILCS 58/5 (2018).
13. 2018 IL 120951.
15. Id. at ¶ 67.
17. Id. at ¶ 18.
20. Id. at ¶ 46.
21. Id. at ¶ 42.
22. Id. at ¶ 39.
23. Vitello, Barbara, “Court: Family can sue fraternity members in fatal NIU hazing”, Daily Herald, January 19, 2018, available at https://www.dailyherald.com/news/20180119/court-family-can-sue-fraternity-members-in-fatal-niu-hazing.
Erin Fine is a Contract Transactional Attorney for a local Chicago technology company. She graduated from WMU-Thomas M. Cooley Law School and Northern Illinois University.