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Tennessee Court of Appeals Reverses Summary Judgment in Favor of College in Former Student’s Negligence Lawsuit Involving Alleged Hazing

When someone is harmed by the negligent actions (or the negligent failure to act) of a person acting within the course and scope of their employment, the law may impose “vicarious liability” against the employer. Typically, the employer’s liability insurance policy will cover such situations if a judgment is entered against the business or if the parties reach a settlement.

Often, however, the employer will attempt to get such claims dismissed prior to trial. One way to do this is to file what is known as a “motion for summary judgment.” In order to prevail on such a motion, the moving party must convince the court that he, she, or it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because there are no genuine issues of material fact that require the consideration of the jury at trial.

It is not unusual for a negligence case to be dismissed on summary judgment, but such an order is not necessarily the end of the case. The losing party can ask the appellate court to review the matter, and, if the appellate court reverses the trial court’s order, the case is remanded to the trial court and the case continues toward trial. If you or someone you love has been harmed by the negligent actions of others, it is in your best interest to consult with a Knoxville personal injury attorney as soon as possible to discuss damages you may be able to recover.

Facts of the Case

In a recent case, the plaintiff was a former student who brought suit against the defendant college, seeking monetary compensation for injuries he allegedly suffered while being hazed by a fraternity. According to the former student, he experienced hazing that included being blindfolded, beaten, paddled, burned, dragged on all fours by a dog collar, and being compelled to drink “numerous concoctions,” one of which included a live fish and one of which may have contained lighter fluid. The former student further alleged that, as a result of the hazing that he had experienced while at the college, he experienced complete renal/kidney failure, which required extensive hospitalization. With regard to his complaint against the college, the former student alleged both negligence and vicarious liability for the actions/failures to act of a college employee who worked in the housing department and also served as the fraternity’s faculty advisor.

The college filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that it did not owe the former student a duty because the hazing was not foreseeable and there was no evidence that the college was on notice of the hazing. The college further argued that the former student was at least 50% at fault and that it could not be vicariously liable to him because its employee had acted outside the course and scope of his employment. The Circuit Court for Madison County granted summary judgment to the college, and the former student appealed.

The Court’s Ruling on Appeal

The Court of Appeals of Tennessee at Jackson affirmed in part and reversed in part. Although there was some evidence that the former student was aware that some hazing (such as three strikes of paddling) would occur, the court found there were genuine issues of material fact regarding whether he fully appreciated or understood the “whole nature” of the hazing that he allegedly endured. Because reasonable minds could thus disagree regarding what percentage of fault should be assessed to the former student, the appellate court found that it was error for the lower tribunal to grant summary judgment to the college based on comparative fault.

With regard to the college’s argument that it did not owe the former student a duty because it had not been put on notice of the hazing, the appellate court found that “this argument miss[ed] the mark.” In the court’s view, the critical question was not whether the faculty advisor would be engaged in hazing but, rather, whether the former student would be victimized and hazed as a pledge with the fraternity. Thus, to the extent that the trial court concluded that no duty existed on the part of the college under the circumstances presented, the court of appeals found this to be error. In so holding, the court noted that the fraternity in question had, “as a national fraternity generally” been involved in several hazing incidents involving death or serious injury. The court further acknowledged that the college had suspended the fraternity in 2012 and its former president had stated that the fraternity would not be reinstated as long as he was alive; after the president died, an interim president had allowed the fraternity to return, without accessing the former president’s records about the fraternity.

Speak to an Attorney About Your Personal Injury Case

At the Hartsoe Law Firm, we handle a wide array of personal injury and wrongful death cases in Knoxville, Maryville, and other cities and towns throughout east Tennessee. If you believe that you may have a claim against an individual, a business, or a branch of the government because of an injury or death caused by negligent, careless, or reckless behavior, you need to talk to a lawyer about filing a claim. To get a started with a free consultation about your car accident, premises liability, or other personal injury matter, contact us through this website or call us at 865-524-5657.

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