Hazing is a way of ritualistically inducting new members into an organization. In media and pop culture, it is often associated with college fraternities. It works like this: A pledge, the person seeking membership, must endure humiliating or harmful acts before becoming a full member. This is an ancient tradition, and it is built on a specific philosophy.
The idea behind hazing is to “prove” yourself. If you really want to be part of the team, then you will be willing to endure the required punishment. It is also a way of making you “one of us.” Now that you’ve been through the pain of hazing, you have earned your rightful place as part of the team. This is the same mentality street gangs use when they “beat in” their new initiates.
Most states have laws against hazing. If you have been inappropriately hazed, you should contact the authorities. Those who victimized you should be brought to justice. There is also another way to seek justice. You can be compensated in a civil trial. It is possible to sue for your hazing injuries and receive damages for your economic loss, pain and suffering, and even punitive damages.
Harmful Hazing Practices
Any kind of hazing can be harmful and traumatic, but sometimes, things go way too far. Arkansas State University lists four different kinds of hazing: subtle, harassment, and violent.
Violent hazing can lead to genuine damage, from the emotional to the physical. At its most extreme, a pledge could be kidnapped and thrown into a dark room. Sometimes it involves physical torture, including paddling or whipping. In darker extremes, the organization can permanently mark their members through branding and cutting. The person being hazed may also be coerced into non-consensual sexual activity.
Other forms of violent hazing involve humiliation. Sometimes the hazers force the victim to strip and be on display. Hazers may shave parts of the victim’s body or write on the victims with permanent markers. Victims could be forced to perform acts of service, such as staying on all fours and cleaning up after the organization’s members. When these acts are forced on someone, the victim can feel completely violated and suffer legitimate trauma that lasts a lifetime.
Not Just Fraternities
When the subject of hazing comes up, people often point to fraternities. Most high-profile hazing stories come from frats, after all. So far in this article, we have referenced only fraternities when discussing hazing. It is important to remember that hazing is a big problem in sororities, as well. Cruelty has no gender, and anyone who actively abuses members of its organization must be held accountable.
The ritual extends beyond the college campuses as well. Any group that considers itself selective can be guilty of hazing. So-called “secret societies,” church groups, and even businesses with new employees can be guilty of hazing rituals.
Who Can You Sue?
It is important to remember that even though you participated in being hazed, you are still a victim. Some will try to convince you that what happened was “consensual,” and you cannot seek justice. This is simply false. There is a very real power dynamic between hazer and victim, and it is used to justify cruel acts.
Once you’ve decided to file a lawsuit, it can be difficult to determine who is liable. Is the individual who directly harmed you responsible? What about onlookers who encouraged their behavior? Is the fraternity itself responsible? Consult your lawyer, and they can help you pick the best course of action.
There are many different types of fraternities. Some are private, affiliated with only themselves. Some fraternities, however, are directly endorsed by and affiliated with the University. These fraternities answer to the University, and the University has a responsibility to police their actions. If hazing behavior is running rampant through the sororities and fraternities of a particular school, that school can be held liable for the actions of these organizations.
The Fraternity, Sorority, or Other Organization
When the organization is private, you may be able to sue it directly. Most fraternities have chapters that are spread across the country, and there should be a centralized power to whom all chapters answer. That main office represents the entire organization. If a specific sorority has a hazing problem that seems to extend to all its chapters, that is a top-down problem, and you may need to hold the entire organization responsible.
However, it is possible that the central authority generally polices its chapters well, but you happened to join a chapter that went rogue. In that case, it may be possible to sue that one specific chapter for its behavior.
Suing the specific individuals who harmed you would likely depend on how the rest of the organization behaves. The same way individual chapters can defy the central organization, individual members can defy their chapter. If the chapter takes a strong stance against hazing and follows through on that commitment, the liability may lie with the individuals who harmed you.