With every troubling new revelation about Florida A&M University’s Marching 100, thepending civil case against FAMU seems to grow stronger for the parents of Robert Champion, the drum major who died from being hazed on a charter bus in Orlando.
But the prospects of Robert and Pamela Champion collecting a large financial settlement or jury award is another matter. That’s because the university enjoys the legal protection of sovereign immunity, which could severely limit the amount of money the Champions ultimately collect if they win a lawsuit.
That does not deter the Champions’ attorney Christopher Chestnut. The evidence, he says, is overwhelming:
•Nearly a quarter of the 400-plus members of the high-stepping band were ineligible to perform at the annual Florida Classic football game in November, yet 60 of those made the trip to the Citrus Bowl.
•Two, and possibly three, of the 11 band members charged with taking part in Champion’s beating death Nov. 19 also were ineligible, meaning they shouldn’t have been there. Another was on probation for battery.
•Two music professors quit under pressure after police discovered they attended a party — hosted at one of their homes — at which band members were hazed.
•Champion’s death occurred despite years of repeated, impassioned appeals from frustrated band parents, who feared the worst for their children. Some claim that school officials seemed unwilling or unable to reverse a deep-seated culture of hazing in the band that has earned a reputation for brutal initiation rituals.
“I’ve never had a case with such overwhelming, incriminating evidence of negligence before taking the first deposition or [receiving] discovery. The facts are bad now for the university and only going to get worse,” said Chestnut. “The university’s negligence [supervising the band] was gross, systematic and historic, and it was just a matter of time [before] someone would lose their life.”
But no matter how negligent FAMU may be proved to be, sovereign immunity could limit the university from liability payouts greater than $200,000 per claim. That would be $200,000 for Robert and $200,000 for Pamela. In the Champions’ home state of Georgia, the claim cap is higher — $1 million per claim, Chestnut said.
Derived from a centuries-old common law that held “the king can do no wrong,” the immunity in Florida extends to county-run hospitals, police departments, schools and other public agencies, including the state’s tax-supported colleges and universities.
The law blunts efforts to collect damages for claims of wrongful death and police brutality.
“Because of the immunity, the [government’s] attitude often is, ‘Go ahead, sue us,’ ” said Leland Garvin, a personal-injury lawyer in Fort Lauderdale. “If they lose, what’s their risk? There’s no hammer, no punishment.”
He said the immunity dampens motivation to correct dangerous conditions.
Only last month, lawyers for the University of Central Florida Athletic Association, a nonprofit corporation that provides direct support to UCF’s sports teams, used the sovereign immunity statute in its appeal of a $10 million jury award to the parents of the late Ereck Plancher.
If granted, the athletic association’s claim, endorsed by trustees of Florida’s 11 state universities including FAMU, could protect it from paying the $10 million.
Plancher, 19, a football player with sickle-cell trait, died during off-season conditioning drills in March 2008 because UCF did not follow guidelines for protecting student-athletes, the parents’ lawyers argued at trial.
The Planchers will oppose the immunity claim, said David Dickey, one of the family’s attorneys.