The Tennessee Court of Appeals is reversing part of a decision involving allegations of hazing at Lane College, an HBCU in Jackson.
De’Audric Halmon, a former Lane College student from Memphis, alleges that while joining the Delta Epsilon Chapter (the Lane College Chapter) of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. in 2016, he was blindfolded, beaten, paddled, burned with candles, sleep deprived, dragged on his hands and knees with a dog collar around his neck and forced to swallow a live goldfish and to drink unknown substances – possibly lighter fluid.
“He almost died,” Halmon’s attorney Eddie Schmidt said Thursday. “He’s lucky to be alive.”
Medical reports link a gallbladder removal to swallowing foreign objects or liquids and many resulting medical conditions, such as renal/kidney failure and esophagitis, to the alleged hazing.
In June 2019, a judge rendered a decision saying Lane College was not liable and that Halmon was at least 50% or more at fault for what happened, which wouldn’t allow him to recover damages from his lawsuit.
The judgment forgoes a trial and says that the facts of the case are indisputable in favor of one side.
But an appeal decision filed on May 29 said otherwise.
The appellate court is upholding that Lane College isn’t negligent or liable, but saying that the fraternity’s faculty advisor, then-Lane employee Calvin Walker, could be liable and that Halmon may not hold at least 50% fault, which would entitle him to damages.
The appellate court’s reversal leaves those facts up to a jury to decide.
From the alleged activities between Jan. and March 2016, Halmon experienced nausea, vomiting, dehydration and kidney failure, all of which required hospitalization, court documents say.
According to Halmon’s complaint, Lane investigated after his hospitalization, determining that his injuries were a result of hazing, in which Walker was a part of, and Lane stopped recognizing Phi Beta Sigma on its campus.
The school denied the allegations in the complaint, Schmidt said.
“Lane College did not (and) was not involved in hazing,” Lane College President Logan Hampton said.
Walker is no longer employed at Lane, and the Lane Chapter of Phi Beta Sigma is no longer active, Hampton said.
“Halmon suffered, and will continue to suffer, permanent physical and emotional injuries, scarring, economic loss and harm,” the complaint says.
In March 2016, according to the complaint, Halmon had severe abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting.
When treated at hospitals in Jackson and in Memphis, he required medical treatment for:
Acute kidney failure because of a lack of oxygen and blood flow to the kidneys
Nausea, vomiting and dehydration
Acute and chronic gallbladder inflammation, which required removal
Fever and anemia
Post traumatic stress disorder
The medical report says in early March 2016, he was hospitalized for five days, during which he underwent dialysis and had his gallbladder removed. Reports from the operation indicated that Halmon ingested foreign substances.
Halmon needed a higher level of care, leading to his hospitalization from March 11, 2016 to March 29, 2016 at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis.
While there, he was in the intensive care unit. Dr. Paul Bierman, a gastroenterologist for over 25 years, and several others treated Halmon. Bierman agreed to be an expert witness in the case and provided a medical report and evaluation on Halmon.
Halmon was also diagnosed with acute respiratory failure, a possible pulmonary artery aneurysm, acute febrile illness, chronic anemia, severe esophagitis and acute kidney failure while in Memphis.
After his release, he returned to the hospital in April and Dec. 2016, Jan. and Sept. 2017 and Jan. and Dec. 2018 for problems related to the many conditions he was diagnosed with after the alleged hazing.
Brierman said that before his March 2016 hospital visit, Halmon was a 21-year old college student in reasonably good health with no pre-existing conditions or symptoms of gallbladder or kidney dysfunction.
The doctor assumes that Halmon didn’t eat or drink any toxic substances other than what he was given or forced to consume.
For that reason, it is more likely that those were the causes of Halmon’s symptoms and conditions, which required multiple, prolonged hospitalizations and medical treatment, Brierman reported.
Lawsuit, judgment, reversal
Halmon filed the lawsuit in Jan. 2017 against Lane College – who the appellate court determined isn’t liable – Walker and ten unnamed individuals. Those unnamed are faculty advisers, administrators, officials, employees and others affiliated with Lane, the complaint says.
Walker – who was the housing department’s area coordinator, the fraternity’s faculty advisor and a member of the fraternity – didn’t intervene or report the hazing, but participated in it, Halmon alleges.
Halmon said he was hazed for several weeks “under direct supervision, instruction, encouragement, assistance, involvement and presence” of Walker.
Halmon’s complaint considered Lane negligent and liable because of Walker’s employment and for knowing about the hazing but being indifferent to the risks of it, documents say.
Lane argued that Halmon was at least 50% at fault and that Walker’s actions were outside the scope of his employment.
The college also argued that the alleged hazing wasn’t foreseeable.
Phi Beta Sigma, Fraternity Inc. is one of the “Divine 9,” one of the nine black Greek letter fraternities and sororities recognized on college campuses and through alumni chapters.
In the 1990s, the organizations eliminated pledging to reduce the risk of hazing, which was traditionally used to initiate new members.
Several universities, including Lane in 2012, revoked Phi Beta Sigma’s right to be on campus because of reported hazing and underground pledging.
Lane College is responsible for ensuring that fraternities and sororities comply with the college’s policies and regulations, including prohibited hazing.
Lane had a duty to protect students joining Phi Beta Sigma, though it isn’t liable for what happened, the appeals court determined.
State law defines hazing as an intentional or reckless act against a student that endangers his or her mental or physical health or safety either on or off campus.
And, the question of foreseeability should be if it is foreseeable that Halmon would be victimized and hazed by Phi Beta Sigma, the appellate court documents say.
Lane’s Phi Beta Sigma chapter was suspended in 2012 for a planned off-campus event, which was the latest in events dating back to 2006. In 2013, although the chapter was suspended, a parent reported a past act of hazing.
Daryl Anderson, executive director for Phi Beta Sigma, testified in a deposition that the former president of Lane College said the chapter would not come back to Lane as long as he was alive. After that president’s death, the interim president allowed the chapter’s reactivation.
So, the appeal document says that Lane was aware of the risks of having the fraternity on its campus even though the college isn’t liable.
Who is at fault?
Walker’s participation in alleged hazing was beyond the scope of his employment because, as fraternity faculty advisor, he was supposed to ensure the chapter’s compliance with the college’s policies and code of conduct, which prohibit hazing.
Walker’s alleged negligence, in not intervening and reporting hazing, imposes liability. Still, the appeals court said Lane isn’t liable for Walker’s actions.
Judgment on fault should only be taken away from a jury if there’s no doubt or question that reasonable people can only come to that conclusion.
The circuit court made the judgment that Halmon was at least 50% at fault based on evidence that Halmon said he knew he’d be hit with a paddle, that he signed an agreement about a non-hazing session and that he continued in the process to become a member of the fraternity despite alleged hazing.
Halmon admitted to being aware of paddling but didn’t know how bad it’d be.
Even after being subjected to “at least a two-hour process” of being beat with a paddle, Halmon testified in depositions that he was “scared” to report the hazing in fear that he’d be beat up.
Hazing and risk management specialist Norman Polland said in an affidavit that hazing is often tolerated by potential new members of organizations because of the “misguided assumption that the process is necessary to be fully accepted.”
Quitting the process and reporting the hazing would have led to emotional abuse, Polland said.
“In 95% of cases where students identified their experience as hazing, they did not report the events to campus officials,” a PowerPoint slide from Lane’s training session on non-hazing said. The slide itself was considered “purported” by Lane because the slides were marked as being from 2017 in a presentation that happened at least a year before that.
The appeals court determined that a jury should decide if Halmon is at fault, how much and to what degree.
What lawsuit demands
As a result of his injuries, Halmon withdrew from school. He enrolled at University of Tennessee at Martin after his recovery but did not finish and never obtained a degree, Schmidt said.
In his lawsuit, Halmon demanded a jury trial. Lane College requested the judgment without a trial.
His lawsuit says he’s entitled to damages, including: past, present and future physical pain and suffering, mental anguish and emotional distress and medical costs; physical impairment; disfigurement; loss of earning capacity and enjoyment of life.
He’s also seeking punitive damages, which are meant to punish the defendant for his or her actions.
The amount of damages won’t be limited to $750,000 for non-monetary damages or to $500,000 for punitive damages if the defendants intended to inflict injury and were under the influence of alcohol, according to state laws.
The defendants’ actions were “intentional, malicious and reckless,” the lawsuit says and happening during and after drinking alcohol.
“This has been a life-changing experience for him (Halmon),” Schmidt said.
The case will return to the Madison County Circuit Court for a trial to be scheduled.