Hazing Injury & Death Attorneys
For too long, hazing has been excused by those who claim it is a centuries-old tradition within collegiate or athletic life. But harmful traditions need to be left in the past. What is all too often brushed off as "good fun" can lead to catastrophic consequences: severe duress, lifelong injuries, and even death.
At Stewart Tilghman Fox Bianchi & Cain, P.A., our hazing injury and death attorneys have been representing the families and victims of hazing for decades.
We've been described as a "national leader in hazing litigation" by the Daily Business Review. NewsNation said "David Bianchi is recognized as one of the nation's most successful lawyers in fraternity hazing cases." We've worked with families across the nation who have suffered because of hazing, and we have long been leading the effort to stop it. From obtaining the largest fraternity hazing verdict in the U.S. to authoring multiple new laws toughening the criminal penalties for hazing to neutralizing defenses that offenders typically raise in hazing cases, we work tirelessly to advocate for those affected by hazing—and will continue to do so.
As our prior clients will attest, we give victims a voice and have a long track record of obtaining significant recoveries for hazing victims and their families.
The Tragic Death-by-Hazing of Chad Meredith
Our firm's hazing work began in 2001 when Attorney David Bianchi represented the parents of Chad Meredith, an 18-year-old student and high school baseball star enrolled at the University of Miami. Shortly after Chad began attending UM, he became a pledge for Kappa Sigma Fraternity. In November 2001, he was in the company of the fraternity president and vice-president when he began to drink excessively at the chapter house. His blood alcohol level was later discovered to be nearly two times the legal limit.
Despite the excessive drinking, the president and vice-president urged Chad to follow them into a dark and cold campus lake at 4 AM, knowing that the university had a rule that prohibited swimming in the lake. Chad had never liked to swim, and he especially hated swimming in water where he could not see the bottom. Nevertheless, he wanted to be accepted by the fraternity, so he reluctantly followed the “brothers” into the lake. However, after making it halfway across, he had a panic attack, struggled to stay afloat, and started screaming for help.
The fraternity vice-president heard his cries and swam over to check on him. He saw Chad desperately flailing his arms and struggling, but he neglected to help him. Instead, he swam away knowing Chad would likely drown if he did not assist. This so-called “brother” callously abandoned Chad in his moment of greatest need.
Hours later, police divers pulled Chad’s body from the bottom of the lake. He drowned in just 6’9” of water.
Chad's parents retained our firm to hold the fraternity officers accountable for their son’s death. In 2004, we tried the case before a Miami jury. We asserted that Chad’s death was directly caused by negligence, a breach of fiduciary duty, and a breach of duty to aid and/or rescue. At the conclusion of the one-week trial, the jury awarded $14 million to Mr. and Mrs. Meredith for the death of their son.
This remains the largest fraternity hazing verdict in the country.
After the verdict, the Meredith family wanted to use the tragic circumstances of their son’s death as an opportunity to put a stop to hazing.
Once again, they turned to our firm for help.
When we learned that Rep. Adam Hasner (R. Delray) was drafting legislation that would make hazing resulting in death or severe injury a third-degree felony, David Bianchi offered to assist. He partnered with Rep. Hasner to toughen Florida law in this area. During our case, the defendants' lawyers argued their clients could not be held liable for Chad’s death because Chad had agreed to swim in the lake. They argued that the swimming was not an event sponsored by the fraternity, and they argued that swimming the lake that night was not a condition of membership for joining the fraternity. While the jury ultimately rejected all these defenses, we knew that future cases would raise similar arguments.
In working on that legislation, one of David’s primary objectives was to take away those defenses from future hazing defendants. In the end, the legislation that David co-authored was signed into law by Governor Bush at the University of Miami where Chad died, and all of David’s provisions to take away the defenses raised in the Meredith case were included in the new law.
David Bianchi Appears on Prime News as "Country's Leading Hazing Lawyer"
Ever since the Chad Meredith case, David Bianchi (now joined by Michael Levine) has committed himself to bringing public and legal accountability whenever fraternities harm students in the name of 'tradition.' After 20 years, he's earned a reputation as one of the nation's leading authorities on hazing litigation.
In October 2021, Prime News interviewed David for a story on changes to the anti-hazing policy at the University of Southern California and introduced him as “one of the nation’s leading hazing lawyers.” In the interview, David was asked what it would take to get rid of hazing practices and whether Greek life should be abolished.
David responded with a clear solution:
Universities need to adopt a policy that should any pledge be seriously
hurt or die because of a hazing event, every chapter officer will be immediately
expelled from the university, regardless of whether they were present
when the hazing took place. The officers are in the best position to stop
hazing before it happens, and if they can’t or won’t do it
and it happens on their watch, they are out; expelled—no questions
asked. This tough policy is necessary since nothing else is working.
— David W. Bianchi
Watch the full interview here:
The Andrew Coffey Case
Like in the above video, David has gone on record to insist that immediate expulsion is the way forward for college administrations seeking to end hazing. Why? Because we won’t end hazing with more seminars or more rules and regulations. We have tried all of that. Fraternity members must believe that there will be severe and immediate consequences for any hazing violation causing serious injury or death.
The need for such action was made clear in the Andrew Coffey case.
Freshman Andrew Coffey died from acute alcohol poisoning because of a hazing tradition called “Big Brother Night” at Pi Kappa Phi at Florida State University in November 2017. Per the tradition, Andrew was given the “family bottle” of Wild Turkey and expected to drink it all. After doing what he was told, he collapsed on a couch in the Phi Kappa Pi house, and no one called 911 or attempted to help him in any way. At 7 AM the next morning, someone found him still on the couch, but he had died, all alone, sometime in the night. As his mother so poignantly described, “our son died in a room full of people, and no one helped him.”
Andrew’s death could have been prevented but is instead another horrible example of what the dangerous, illegal, and unsafe fraternity traditions can do to young men by exploiting their desire to make friends. Nine fraternity members were criminally prosecuted for their role in Andrew Coffey’s death under the Chad Meredith Act, and they all went to jail.
There have been 70 fraternity deaths in the United States just since the year 2000, and there is no end in sight.
Following his resolution of the case for the parents of Andrew Coffey, David went back to work to improve Florida’s “Chad Meredith Act” based on what he had learned from his most recent hazing cases. Feeling strongly that Andrew Coffey would be alive today if just one of the so-called fraternity “brothers” had called 911 sooner, David and Michael Levine from our firm wrote an amendment to the existing law to encourage fraternity members to call for help when a hazing victim is in trouble. After the amendment was written, legislative sponsors were recruited and in March 2019, David and Tom and Sandy Coffey testified before the Florida legislature in support of the changes to the law. A video of their testimony before one of the committees that day appears below.
As David testified, “we need to make our good law even better.” He then proceeded to explain the proposed amendments to the Chad Meredith Act that he had drafted so many years earlier. David's expertise on this subject and the courageous testimony of Andrew’s parents convinced the legislature that these amendments offered necessary improvements to the existing law. The amendments subsequently passed both the Florida House and the Florida Senate without a single “no” vote and were subsequently signed into law by Governor DeSantis. They are officially known as “Andrew’s Law.”
To learn more about Attorney David Bianchi's work to toughen anti-hazing laws, click here.
Andrew’s Law provides as follows:
- Grants immunity from prosecution under the hazing statute for anyone who calls 911 or administers aid to the victim of hazing while help is on the way.
- Requires that to get the immunity the person must remain on the scene to assist the police or fire rescue and provide information about what happened to the victim so that they can properly attend to him.
- Other improvements to the Chad Meredith Act.
Andrew's Law attempts to break through the culture of secrecy that makes investigating and prosecuting hazing so difficult, encouraging those who are aware of what happened to call for help. The new law was partially inspired by the plight of Nicholas Mauricio, an FSU student who suffered a permanent brain injury because of a fraternity tradition called “scumbag of the week” less than a year after Andrew's death. After being knocked to the floor at a chapter meeting and striking his head on the hard tile, Nicholas was later taken to the hospital where his brain injury was diagnosed. Criminal charges were filed in that case for violations of provisions of the “Chad Meredith Act.”
David Bianchi and Michael Levine from our law firm worked together to represent Nicholas Mauricio and to make a recovery for him for the serious injuries he sustained that will impact him for the rest of his life.
As part of Tom and Sandra Coffey's efforts to try and prevent Andrew's tragedy from repeating itself in the future, they created an informational anti-hazing pamphlet to help students identify the red flags of hazing behavior. Efforts like theirs will hopefully one day eliminate the scourge of hazing.
Governor DeSantis officially signed Andrew's Law in June 2019, making our state the uncontested leader in hazing law protections. To learn more, view the Daily Business Review article detailing the signing of "Andrew's Law."
A photograph of Mr. and Mrs. Coffey at the Florida Legislature along with David Bianchi, Michael Levine and Steve Cain from our firm appeared on the famous billboard in Times Square in New York City.
Daniel Santulli & Andrew Coffey: Parallel Hazing Tragedies
After decades of representing hazing victims and their families throughout the United States, we often see very similar traditions repeat themselves with similarly tragic consequences.
One of our most recent cases illustrates that.
In October 2021, University of Missouri freshman Daniel Santulli was subjected to “Pledge Dad Reveal Night” which was nearly identical to “Big Brother Night” that Andrew Coffey attended at Florida State; two different fraternities in two different states with the very same tradition. Danny and Andrew were both given the so-called "family bottle" of alcohol. For Andrew, it was Wild Turkey. For Danny, it was Tito’s vodka. Each was pressured into drinking the entire thing. Danny, who was already sleep-deprived and depressed from enduring a month of pledge-related humiliations, tried to stop but was pressured into drinking it all.
Later that night, fraternity members found both Andrew and Danny unresponsive on a couch in their chapter house. In both cases, no one called 911. Andrew was left alone until the next morning where he was found deceased. Danny was eventually driven to the local hospital in a fraternity member’s car. When they arrived, however, the ER staff realized that he was not breathing and was in cardiac arrest. CPR was immediately administered while he was still in the car. By the time Danny's heart was restarted, his brain had been deprived of oxygen for so long that he had suffered significant, irreversible brain damage. Though he is now able to breathe on his own, he remains unresponsive and unable to communicate in any way. He will require 24-hour care for the rest of his life.
David Bianchi and Michael Levine are now representing Danny in a lawsuit we have filed against 23 defendants, all of whom are responsible for what happened to him. We will not rest until the fraternity officers and members responsible for Daniel's injuries are held accountable.
In Andrew Coffey’s case, nine fraternity members went to jail for what they did. In Danny’s case, the criminal investigation is ongoing, and we are expecting criminal charges to be filed soon.
Danny’s case underscores the need for all states to adopt “Andrew’s Law” so that fraternity members are incentivized to call 911 before irreparable damage is done to yet another hazing victim.
In January 2022, STFBC filed a lawsuit against Phi Gamma Delta, local chapter Chi Mu, and 21 other fraternity officers and members for their role in what happened to Danny. Read our blog to learn more.
There is no one universal definition of hazing; different states define it differently but, hazing is defined as a situation where someone is subjected to physical or mental duress before being permitted to join a group or organization such as a fraternity, sorority, team, etc.
While hazing has been commonplace in the U.S. for a long time, the parents of hazing victims have recently been speaking up with louder voices and organizing against it in greater numbers. Their voices are being heard. Hazing is gaining increasing awareness because of the dangers it poses. Almost every year, people are seriously injured or die from hazing; though many states are trying to stop it, their efforts have been largely ineffective.
Although each act of hazing varies significantly, there are several things they have in common:
- The first most common feature of almost every hazing incident we have seen in our cases is alcohol. In almost every case, the fraternity hazers and the fraternity victims have been consuming alcohol, causing them to do things they would not normally do if they were sober. Alcohol plays a big role in almost all hazing.
- The second most common feature of hazing is “peer pressure.” Peer pressure is the group dynamic that causes young and vulnerable college freshmen who are away from home (often for the first time) to submit to dangerous, illegal, and unsafe demands by a fraternity “brother” to perpetuate a fraternity tradition. The young pledges simply want to make friends in their new school environment and be accepted by upper classmen and, as a result, they do things that they would not otherwise agree to do. Frequently, the fraternity brothers tell them, “I had to do it, so you have to do it”; not wanting to be blackballed, the young pledges agree to go along.
- The third most common feature of the hazing incidents is fear of rejection. No one wants to be rejected by a fraternity after enduring the pledging process, and no one wants to be ridiculed or embarrassed by saying “no” to something that the pledge views as a condition of membership. The fraternity brothers know this and know that they are likely to get pledges to agree to do almost anything.
The collective stew pot of alcohol, peer pressure, and the fear of rejection is a toxic brew that gets even the best, brightest, and most accomplished young college students to do things that they would never ever have done without these influences on their decision-making process.
Types of Hazing
Most students have trouble identifying hazing because it can look so different. Sociologists are just beginning to study hazing seriously, but there are five basic types of hazing worth mentioning.
The types of hazing we see most often are:
- Fraternity Hazing: The abuse or coercion of pledges or junior fraternity members (usually as part of an initiation).
- Sexual Hazing: Forcing or coercing members into performing or simulating sexual acts.
- Alcohol Abuse: Pressuring members into ingesting dangerous amounts of alcohol against their will.
- Violent Hazing: The use or threat of force to abuse and coerce people in a group ritual setting.
- Harassment Hazing: Non-physical forms of abuse or coercion (e.g., sleep deprivation, abuse, torture).
It should be noted that there is frequent overlap with these categories. For instance, forms of sexual hazing are also violent, and alcohol abuse is one of the most common forms of fraternity hazing.
Acts of hazing can be unique to the organization performing them, although fraternities nationwide often share the same harmful traditions. Usually, hazing involves the dangerous consumption of alcohol, with many well-known injuries and deaths related to alcohol poisoning over the years.
Other examples of hazing include the following:
- Public humiliation and ridicule
- Physical abuse, such as beating and paddling
- Forced suffering of hardships such as sleep deprivation
- Forced physical exercise or activities, especially in dangerous circumstances
- Forced consumption of food, either in hazardous quantities or conditions
Although the media only reports the hazing that results in severe or fatal injury, hazing causes untold amounts of harm to thousands of young people every year that never make the headlines. Hazing happens to students of all genders and ages, from middle schools to universities. When surveyed, half of college students in clubs, sports, or organizations reported being hazed.
- Hazing abuse can result in problems like:
- Suicidal thoughts
- Inability to sleep
- Feelings of losing control
- Degraded relationships with friends and family
- Growing sense of isolation
- Loss of trust in organizations
- Emotional or mental instability
- Inability to complete coursework or earn good grades
- Post-traumatic stress
The most obvious place where hazing occurs is Greek life; however, that is not the only spot. It can also occur in sports, clubs, honor societies, and more. Wherever people are seeking admission, there is a threat of hazing. It is most prevalent in colleges, but it can also occur at middle schools, high schools, companies, and more.
There's no evidence of any kind that hazing abuse builds "unity." What we do have is a wealth of knowledge showing that systematic and targeted abuse is used to exert control and power over others—and that the victims can be taught to perpetuate abuse in a vicious cycle. Fraternities are hierarchical organizations with senior ranking members, officers, junior members, and prospective members. While there is nothing wrong with having a ranking system, fraternities often employ hazing to solidify the power structure of the organization. Its why new members feel entitled to abuse new members: because their place in the hierarchy allows them to do so.
That is what hazing creates: not unity, not camaraderie, but control.
Hazing is often committed by organizations such as sports teams, clubs, university programs, and fraternities. Most of these organizations are well-prepared for litigation when tragedy occurs, which is why families need an equally well-prepared trial lawyer in their corner. The victims of hazing don't just need someone who is a strong litigator; they need someone familiar with institutional dynamics, knows hazing law, and has had prior success in trying hazing cases.
That's why victims of hazing call Stewart Tilghman Fox Bianchi & Cain: we have obtained the largest fraternity hazing jury verdict in the country as well as numerous multimillion-dollar settlements for our clients in other cases. We don’t just talk the talk; we have been walking the walk for decades.
When it comes to knowing the law, STFBC is the only firm that can say we helped write anti-hazing laws in Florida. Anti-hazing advocates have praised our legislative work as "innovative" and “lifesaving.” We are considered by many to be the foremost hazing lawyers in the nation. If you have questions about what happened to you or your loved one, speak with us in a free consultation today.
Let Us Help You Get the Answers You Need About Hazing
If you or a member of your family has been victimized by hazing, or if you have lost someone you love to a fatal hazing incident, we encourage you to contact us now. Our firm handles hazing cases and fraternity hazing lawsuits nationwide, and we passionately believe that students and their family deserve the very best representation.
We are happy to put you in touch with our prior clients, and you can ask them anything you want to about our representation of their families and whether they were happy with our work. We already know what the answer will be.
We will not stop until we have put an end to the dangerous traditions that continue to endanger unsuspecting hazing victims. To take the first step in learning about your options, contact us today. We offer completely free and confidential consultations to review your case, discuss your legal options with you, and help you understand your next steps.