Florida A&M University wants Robert Champion lawsuit thrown out or delayed until criminal charges resolved

Florida A&M Marching 100 Drum Major Robert Champion during a performance at halftime of the game against Howard University at Bragg Memorial Stadium on Oct. 8, 2011 in Tallahassee, Florida. Champion became ill and died after a game on November 19, 2011.
AP Photo/Don Juan Moore
FAMU hazing death was retaliation: parents
Florida A&M Marching 100 Drum Major Robert Champion during a performance at halftime of the game against Howard University at Bragg Memorial Stadium on Oct. 8, 2011 in Tallahassee, Florida.
AP Photo/Don Juan Moore

(CBS/AP) TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Florida A&M University, which has been rocked by a hazing scandal for nearly a year, wants a judge to throw out a lawsuit filed against the university by the family of Robert Champion, the drum major who died after being beaten by fellow members of the marching band last November.

Pictures: Florida A&M hazing case

In papers filed Monday, the university maintained that it was Champion, not the school, who bears the ultimate responsibility for his death. The university asserts that the 26-year-old Champion was a top leader in the band and he should have refused to take part in the hazing ritual.

"No public university or college has a legal duty to protect an adult student from the result of their own decision to participate in a dangerous activity while off-campus and after retiring from university-sponsored events," states the lengthy filing by Richard Mitchell, an attorney with the Gray Robinson law firm hired by FAMU.

Instead, the university maintains that Champion - who it says witnessed others being hazed that night on the bus - consented to the hazing ritual in order to gain respect among fellow band members.

The university wants the lawsuit thrown out or delayed until criminal charges against Marching 100 band members are resolved. The family also sued the owner and driver of the charter bus where the ritual took place.

"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," states the motion filed by the university.

The legal filing represents the first formal response that the university has made in the wake of Champion's death, which led to arrests of band members, the suspension of the famed band for this football season and the resignation of the school's president. Twelve former members have pleaded not guilty to charges of felony hazing.

The suit was brought by Champion's parents, Robert and Pamela Champion of Decatur, Ga. University trustees had discussed trying to mediate the lawsuit, but FAMU's response may have doomed that effort.

Chris Chestnut, the attorney representing the Champion family, said the lawsuit needs to go forward so that the university is held accountable for tolerating a culture of hazing that went unchecked for years.

"Someone has got to hold FAMU accountable," Chestnut said Monday. "We are now more committed than ever to litigate this case to clear Robert's name and eradicate the culture of hazing for the safety of future students."

The Champions claim university officials did not take action to stop hazing even though a school dean proposed suspending the band because of hazing three days before their son died. In its response the university denied that any specific proposal or recommendation was made regarding suspending the band prior to Champion's death.

The Champion lawsuit also noted that school officials allowed nonstudents to play in the band and asserts that school officials fell short in enforcing anti-hazing policies and did not keep a close eye on band members to prevent hazing.

The university in the last several months has instituted a long list of new policies, including limiting the Marching 100 to just FAMU students and putting in new academic policies. Beginning in spring 2013, students will be required to sign an anti-hazing pledge before they're allowed to register for classes.

The State University System of Florida still has a pending probe into whether university officials had ignored past warnings about problems with hazing at FAMU.

Hundreds of pages of records reviewed earlier this year by the Associated Press showed years of repeated warnings about brutal hazing passed without any serious response from the school's leadership until Champion died.

Complete coverage of the Florida A&M hazing case on Crimesider