BATON ROUGE — A Senate committee on Tuesday approved a bill that would allow punitive damages for negligence in lawsuits over hazing deaths, potentially holding universities liable for big damage awards.
Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, wrote the bill, which follows the death of LSU freshman Maxwell Gruver last September after he was forced to drink six times the legal alcohol limit at a fraternity house.
“I just want to change the behavior,” Claitor said. “This is about death. I think this bill is just to ensure that a kid doesn’t die.”
Claitor’s bill would authorize the family of a victim whose death resulted from “a wanton and reckless disregard for the rights and safety of the victim through an act of hazing” to sue those responsible for punitive damages.
The Senate Judiciary A Committee advanced the bill after a debate over the legal implications for universities and fraternities, and it will now go to the Senate floor.
Punitive damages are civil awards that go beyond regular general damages that a court might decide.
Other lawmakers are proposing stiffer criminal penalties for hazing, and Gruver’s parents expected to attend a hearing on Wednesday morning on a bill by Rep. Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, to increase the criminal sanctions.
Louisiana’s legal code defines hazing as “the use of any method of initiation into fraternal organizations in any educational institution supported wholly or in part by public funds, which is likely to cause bodily danger or physical punishment to any student or other person attending any such institution.”
Gruver’s parents were not pleased with a task force proposal for changes in fraternity rules at LSU and complained that it represented only an “appearance of reform.” The family has not indicated whether it was considering suing LSU or Phi Delta Theta, the national fraternity that Gruver was pledging.
After Gruver’s death, LSU President King Alexander created the President’s Task Force on Greek Life, which proposed 28 recommendations aimed at preventing binge drinking and hazing.
Alexander accepted those recommendations and added three more including immediate expulsion of students found responsible for hazing and the right of university officials to randomly search fraternity and sorority houses.
Some committee members questioned who exactly could be held responsible and who could be subjected to punitive damages, given that families have sued other universities after hazing deaths in other states.
Sen. Rick Ward, R-Port Allen, asked Claitor specifically who the defendant would be in these cases, and if the university or a national fraternal organization could be held responsible in the circumstance of a death due to hazing.
“Any defendant who is found to be wanton and reckless,” Claitor responded.
However, Claitor said he felt that if universities and national fraternal organizations set out specific rules and policies that clearly discouraged and presented penalties for hazing, as most currently do, then this would not be considered means for punitive damages.
Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, also questioned who could be held responsible and asked if parents of fraternity members could be sued.
Claitor replied that this was possible.
“I think that this could include everyone in the state,” Donahue said with evident sarcasm. “Not just limit it to what happened here. Let’s get everyone in it and make it really big.”
“In all due respect, I think that would be a bad way to go,” Claitor said.
Donahue also argued that harsher criminal punishment would be appropriate and effective in preventing hazing, but punitive damages would not.
Claitor disagreed. “I think the criminal penalty we have now has not changed conduct,” he said.
He also said hoped that noone would ever pay a dollar under the proposed bill.
Sen. W. Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria, reasoned that Louisiana currently gives punitive damages for timber theft and asked if the committee felt that “trees are more valuable than human life.”
Sen. Wesley T. Bishop, D-New Orleans, on the other hand, felt that the bill did not cover enough.
“I have spent 20 years on a university campus dealing with this on a regular basis,” he said. “I am also a member of a fraternity, so I know that a lot more goes on than what actually goes public,” Bishop added. “I am actually curious why you did not take this bill a step further.”
He asked Claitor why he did not include injury resulting from hazing along with death.
“I can count votes,” Claitor responded. “I think this is what I can pass.”
Claitor said he did not speak to any LSU officials before writing the bill.
“For good or for bad, I am able to come up with bills that make sense,” Claitor said. “The university definitely did not ask me to bring this bill. The national fraternity organization definitely did not ask me to bring this bill. The family of the fellow that died did not ask me to bring this bill. I could have stood by and not brought anything, but I think this is a valuable tool.”
By Devon Sanders, LSU Manship School News Service