Monday, July 01, 2013

Champion's parents accuse FAMU of chasing dollars as they seek money from Rosen hotel

Back when Pamela and Robert Champion, Sr. announced their decision to sue the Rosen Plaza hotel for their son's hazing death aboard a parked bus, the reactions among news website visitors ranged from laughter to shock.

Commenters ask if the company that made the band instruments will be the next to be sued

Many of the commenters in response forums sarcastically asked who the Champions would sue next. Some guessed that future defendants would include the contractors who paved the I-75 interstate the bus used to travel from Tallahassee to Orlando. Other commenters said they thought the Champions would soon seek damages from the businesses that made the band uniforms and instruments.

The explanation Champion's parents gave for their lawsuit against Rosen provided even more fodder for such jokes.

According to the Orlando Sentinel: "The Champion family’s lawyer claims that Rosen's operators and its security team should have known that a hazing was reasonably likely to occur on the premises. The lawsuit alleges that marching band members were involved in a hazing on the hotel's 18th floor about six months earlier — an incident that led to the suspension of 30 members of the Marching 100. The suit, which previously accused FAMU, the bus company and its driver of allowing the hazing to take place, alleges that the parking lot was dimly lit, lacked security and surveillance cameras which could have deterred the hazing."

Rosen Plaza hotel could be a more profitable target than FAMU

The criminal investigation by the Orange County Sheriff's Office found that Robert Champion, Jr., a 26-year old student, "willingly participated" in the "Crossing Bus C" ritual that left him dead.

The absence of parking lot security guards and surveillance cameras didn't force any student to consent to hazing on November 19, 2011. But it might not matter in the end because Rosen could just offer a settlement in order to make the bad publicity go away. Civil lawsuits based on flimsy accusations often count on the defendants to be scared into agreeing to a quick financial resolution.

Rosen has the potential to be a much more profitable target than FAMU. The sovereign immunity law of Florida limits FAMU's civil payouts to $300,000. Anything that goes above that amount must be appropriated through a claims bill in the Florida Legislature. But most Florida lawmakers have shown very little interest in approving claims bills for student deaths in the State University System.

There is no sovereign immunity protection for Rosen. It would be forced to pay the full amount of any civil settlement or award immediately.

So it is ironic that the Champions are now accusing FAMU of lifting the Marching 100’s suspension out of a desire for money.

"When you look at the history, their decision in putting the band on the field knowing years after years of what -- the problems they had in the band, they took the steps of putting the band on the field anyway for the dollar, so you really have to -- there is no other way to think about the fact that you are putting dollar value over student’s value," Pamela Champion said.

Champion, Sr. said much of the same. "They are putting dollars over the students," he told reporters.

Tisdale case shows how evidence of personal negligence can end hopes for a big civil payment

The Champions claim that FAMU placed monetary concerns over student safety even as they continue to deny the evidence that their son voluntarily participated in hazing. What is the reason for this?

Maybe they think it would be hard to win a civil damages verdict against FAMU if they admitted that their son knowingly worked against the university's efforts to enforce the anti-hazing rules meant to protect him. Maybe they also believe such an admission would lessen the likelihood of a large settlement offer from the Rosen Plaza hotel.  

Champion's parents would be justified in having such concerns after the outcome of another recent transportation-related civil lawsuit that was handled by their attorney, Christopher Chestnut. The family of deceased teenager Delvonte Tisdale, who was suspected of sneaking into the wheel well of a US Airways airplane in Charlotte, hired Chestnut to handle their civil lawsuits.

A judge dismissed the Tisdale family's lawsuits against US Airways, the city of Charlotte, and the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. He shot down Chestnut's arguments by saying, in part, that "by allegedly entering a secured area and climbing into the wheel well, Mr. Tisdale was himself negligent."

By continuing to deny the evidence that their son asked to participate in the violent "Crossing Bus C" ritual, the Champions seem more interested in seeking civil case dollars than using this unfortunate tragedy to teach students the importance of saying no to voluntary hazing. That is "putting dollars over the students."

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