Suffering a serious injury during a hazing incident often can justify a lawsuit against the individuals who caused the injury and the organization that allowed or encouraged the hazing event to go on. Victims of violent or dangerously coercive hazing can endure severe alcohol poisoning, physical injuries, and emotional harm. While evaluating whether a lawsuit is the right move lawyers and their clients analyze the defenses that are available to the potential defendants. Hazing injuries often occur in circumstances that lend themselves to certain defenses.
When considering defenses one must distinguish between criminal and civil cases. Nevada law defines hazing as a crime. The definition of criminal hazing is “an activity in which a person intentionally or recklessly endangers the physical health of another person for the purpose of initiation into or affiliation with a student organization, academic association or athletic team at a high school, college or university in this state.” The state may pursue criminal charges against individuals or organizations that engage in activities that meet the criminal definition of hazing. Among other things, the victim’s consent is not a valid defense in criminal court.
In a civil court case, hazing is not a distinct cause of action. Although the facts that would form the foundation of a criminal prosecution will also be important in a civil trial, the civil plaintiff usually seeks damages under a civil theory, such as negligence, gross negligence, civil battery, or in the most tragic cases wrongful death. In a civil context a number of defenses may arise:
- Evidence. Evidence is an issue in every case, whether criminal or civil. The plaintiff must show that the defendants legally caused the plaintiff’s injuries. Where the plaintiff doesn’t know for sure who caused the injury (for example, if the plaintiff was blindfolded or highly intoxicated) it may be difficult to pin liability on a specific defendant.
- Lack of sponsorship. An organization that is sued for hazing incidents that take place in connection with its membership activities (such as a fraternity’s hazing of recruits) probably will point to its policies and practices designed around preventing hazing to begin with, with the goal of showing that it was solely the responsibility of the individuals doing the hazing and not a broader, institutional practice. Digging into the facts can help the plaintiff here: if the organization has been conducting such hazing for years with its leadership’s tacit approval, this defense may not succeed.
- Consent. And in a civil context the victim’s forced consent to being abused may not hold up, either: a forced choice is often no choice at all. But the plaintiff can expect the specific facts of the situation to play a part. For example, a plaintiff who had been drinking heavily before the hazing event began may not be able to argue that he or she was forced to drink during the hazing event.
One important thing victims of hazing must bear in mind is that liability and defenses against it are highly fact-dependent. What may at first glance seem like a solid defense may on further exploration turn out to be flimsy or irrelevant. The best course in any case involving personal injury is to review the facts of the injury with an experienced attorney.
The law firm of Greenman Goldberg Raby Martinez has represented clients in personal injury cases for over 45 years. If you or a loved one has been injured in a hazing incident and you would like to find out what your legal options are, call us today for a free attorney consultation. We’re available at 702-388-4476 or contact us through our website.