(ORLANDO, Fla.) — The parents of hazing victim Robert Champion are “appalled” that Florida A&M University is insisting in court papers that their son was responsible for his own beating death during a hazing incident at the school.
“It’s startling that they would blame the victim for his own death,” Champion family attorney Christopher Chestnut told ABC News Tuesday. “FAMU is pointing the finger at everyone else but themselves, including their own students.”
Chestnut said that Champion’s parents, Robert and Pamela Champion, are “appalled” by the university’s claim, but that they’re “more committed than ever” to abolishing the culture of hazing at the school.
“Arguably, part of the reason the culture still exists is because the blame has always been on anyone except for the institution, by the institution,” Chestnut said. “FAMU is always blaming other people, never taking responsibility.”
The university filed a motion on Monday night to dismiss Champion’s parents’ wrongful-death lawsuit against the school.
Champion, 26, was a member of the college’s famed “Marching 100″ band when he collapsed and died Nov. 19 on a bus parked outside an Orlando hotel after a football game.
FAMU claims that the hazing occurred after Champion was “relieved of his responsibilities” as a band member and had already gone back to his room and changed out of his band uniform.
“No, he was on the clock,” Chestnut said. “This is a school sanctioned event. It’s in a bus they chartered, at a hotel they designated for him to stay at exclusively with members and staff of this institution.”
The university’s motion also points out that Champion signed a “Hazing and Harassment Agreement” months before his death in which he acknowledged understanding the “dangers of participating in hazing, either as a hazer or a hazee.”
“It is undisputed that Mr. Champion knew that existence of the danger (hazing) of which Plaintiff now complains, he realized and appreciated the possibility of injuries as a result of such danger, and notwithstanding the opportunity to avoid the danger simply by not showing up at the designated place and time, he deliberately exposed himself to the danger,” the motion said.
Chestnut called the reference to the signed agreement a “tongue-in-cheek” move by the school.
“Everyone signed that agreement, but they also knew that unless you were hazed, you weren’t accepted,” he said.
The school called the other band members on the bus “Mr. Champion’s co-conspirators” and said there was no allegation or evidence that Champion reported the hazing event or tried to stop anyone from participating.
“Florida’s sovereign immunity bars Plaintiff’s claim against FAMU because Mr. Champion agreed, conspired, combined or confederated with others to do unlawful acts, and encouraged, requested or helped cause others to commit such unlawful acts.”
The filing said that even if one assumes that Champion did not commit any crimes in relation to the hazing, he at least “participated as a hazee.”
The motion also cites the sworn statement given by band mate Keon Hollis, who was also hazed the night of Champion’s death.
After Hollis and Champion changed out of their band uniforms and returned to the hotel following the football game, Hollis said Champion asked him if we was going to “cross the bus,” which is how they referred to the hazing ritual that took place on a bus.
Hollis said that when he told Champion he was going to participate, Champion “stated to me that he was going to cross as well. I asked him if he were [sic] sure he wanted to do it and he stated, ‘Yea, I just want to get it over with.’”
“In the final analysis, neither Mr. Champion, Mr. Hollis, hotel security, nor law enforcement experts … were able to predict or prevent this shocking and depraved hazing incident, and therefore, it would be unfair and illogical to hold FAMU to a different and higher level of omnipotence,” the motion states.
The Champions alleged in their lawsuit that the school did not do enough to stop the hazing that was a well-known tradition within the marching band.
“Our whole goal here is to make sure no one else has to go through what we’ve gone through and in order to do that there needs to be some accountability,” Pamela Champion said in July.
The lawsuit also seeks monetary compensation for the Champion family for reasons including “past and future mental pain and suffering,” “past and future loss of decedent’s support and services,” and expenses from medical care and funeral arrangements.
FAMU denied that money is owed to the Champions.
“Respectfully, as a 26 year old adult and leader in FAMU’s band, Mr. Champion should have refused to participate in the planned hazing event and reported it to law enforcement or University administrators,” the motion says. “Under these circumstances, Florida’s taxpayers should not be held financially liable to Mr. Champion’s Estate for the ultimate result of his own imprudent, avoidable and tragic decision and death.”
Thirteen FAMU band members have been charged in relation to Champion’s death. Eleven of the band members face felony hazing charges and the other two face misdemeanor hazing charges. The defendants have pleaded not guilty.
In May, over 2,000 pages of evidence from the investigation into Champion’s death were released by the Florida District Attorney’s Office, which delivered a blow-by-blow account of the events from the night of Robert Champion’s death.
Champion endured a lethal pummeling down the aisle of a pitch-black bus that rocked from the force of the violence inside, according to the documents.
Champion struggled, with a female band member holding him back to prolong the punishment, through a gauntlet of band mates who used their fists, feet, straps and sticks to pound him into unconsciousness.
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